Chinese opportunism is at work here, of course; one might even say cynicism. But what China has had in its favor for the last ten years or so is a virtual monopoly on the playing field. So much so that if nothing important changes, historians may look back in 20 or 30 years and ask the question: Who lost Africa?

The questions for the Obama and Romney campaigns, then, are: How will your administration break with Washington’s outdated Africa policies? How will the United States keep pace with China and other emerging economic powers, like India, Brazil and Turkey, which are all stepping up their engagements with Africa? What, specifically, can the US do to help develop markets in Africa, tap the huge, ongoing demographic shift there, and change the relationship between this country and the continent into one of much greater opportunity for all concerned?

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Howard W. French is an associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2003 to 2008, he was the Shanghai bureau chief of The New York Times. At present, he is a fellow of the Open Society Foundation and is researching a book on China and Africa. French's most recent book is "Disappearing Shanghai: Photographs and Poems of an Intimate Way of Life," with Qiu Xiaolong.