What’s behind Beijing’s drive to control the South China Sea? (Guardian Long

Copyright The Guardian

A satellite image of Chinese land reclamation on Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands.
 A satellite image of Chinese land reclamation on Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands. Photograph: DigitalGlobe/Getty Images

On 26 May, CNN broadcast an unusual clip of a US navy intelligence flight over the South China Sea. The P-8A Poseidon surveillance plane – one of the newest weapons in the Pentagon’s arsenal – had taken off, with a CNN reporter on board, from Clark airbase in the Philippines, once part of America’s largest overseas base complex during the cold war. After about 45 minutes, the plane reached its first target – which had, until recently, been an obscure, almost entirely submerged feature in the Spratly Island group.

Fifteen thousand feet below, dozens of Chinese ships tossed at anchor. Their crews had been working day and night for weeks, dredging sand and rock from the ocean floor to fill in a stunning blue lagoon – turning a 3.7-mile-long reef that had only partially revealed itself to the daylight at low tide into a sizable man-made island nearly 1,000 miles away from the Chinese mainland.

At the approach of the American aircraft, a Chinese radio operator can be heard addressing the pilot: “This is the Chinese navy. This is the Chinese navy … Please leave immediately to avoid misunderstanding.” When the plane, which was busily photographing the land-reclamation effort, failed to heed these instructions, the operator grew exasperated, and the recording ends as abruptly as it had begun, with him shouting the words: “You go!”

 China’s land grab in the South China Sea

For many people who viewed this clip, it might have almost passed for entertainment, but the plane continued on to a place called Fiery Cross, whose history and recent development point to how deadly serious the struggle over the South China Sea has become. Fiery Cross came under Chinese control in 1988, following a confrontation with Vietnam at a nearby site, Johnson Reef, where Chinese troops opened fire from a ship on a contingent of Vietnamese soldiers who stood in knee-deep seas after having planted their country’s flag in the coral. A YouTube video of the incident shows dozens of Vietnamese being cut down in the water under a hail of machine-gun fire.

To read the entire piece, please follow this link.

 

Should the United States Fear China in Africa?

The best reasons to pay attention to Africa are inherent to Africa itself. They go to extraordinary demographics, with an upside at least as full of opportunity as the downside is full of risk. They go to the immense opportunity for both Africans and Americans represented by economic growth on the continent, which needs to be enhanced and broadened.

Copyright The Washington Post

Should the West fear China’s growing influence on the African continent? While there is no question that China and Chinese companies are changing the way African politicians seek aid and investment, the relationship between the two sides is far more complicated than simple narratives about “democracy or dictatorship” or “trade not aid” suggest. Veteran journalistHoward W. French explores this complexity in his book, “China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa.” He graciously took the time to answer my questions about the book and China’s role in Africa.

LS: Much of the discourse in American politics is that the U.S. should be afraid of China’s role in Africa because China is undemocratic or “trying to take over.” Is this a fair approach? Why or why not?

HF: I’m afraid the American discourse on China and Africa is very confused and generally not very insightful. Part of that is driven by the recent, still startled realization in this society of just how serious a competitor China is becoming, and part of that reflects the baggage of very old and nearly immutable American attitudes toward Africa, which are bound up in paternalism and in using Africa as a kind of vanity mirror to help us brighten our own self-image and feel better about ourselves.

Make no mistake, China is competing with the United States, and an important element of that is going where its major rival, namely us, is thinly represented on the ground, lightly engaged in terms of political, economic and policymaking resources — in other words, places where the United States has been coasting or has simply not brought its “A Game.” This background has a lot to do with why China has made such a big and concerted push into Africa in the last 10 to 15 years, and why, not coincidentally, the United States didn’t really sit up and pay attention until fairly recently. Even with that, we are stuck with old policy paradigms in Africa that hark back to the Clinton administration, of favoring selected autocrats who can keep order locally in their regions, cooperate with the United States in its extra-African policy priorities, especially those related to radical Islam and the “war on terror,” and we do so, furthermore, in the naive conviction that the autocrats also offer a better chance at generating and sustaining economic growth. This is how, for example, Barack Obama came to announce Ethiopia as the political highlight of his coming, near-end-of-presidency visit to the continent, and adding a visit by the leader of democratic Nigeria, an immensely important country, only as an apparent afterthought and in response to a certain outcry.

In the final analysis, though, the reason to pay attention to Africa is not China. We need to get over the idea that one needs an excuse to pay attention to Africa. That, too, is a holdover from the Clinton era, when they came up with out-migration and the threat of epidemic diseases as an excuse to have a look in on the continent, perhaps as a response to Robert Kaplan. The best reasons to pay attention to Africa are inherent to Africa itself. They go to extraordinary demographics, with an upside at least as full of opportunity as the downside is full of risk. They go to the immense opportunity for both Africans and Americans represented by economic growth on the continent, which needs to be enhanced and broadened. They go to urbanization. And, finally, they go to matters of universal interest related to the environment, in other words, helping ensure that Africa, which is a late-starter in many economic processes, can both maximize its potential and get things right environmentally. As long as we cast our interest in Africa in negative frames, of security, or rivalry with China, we’ll continue to miss this hugely important big picture. Similarly, as long as we continue to play small ball, politically, calling an Africa policy the occasional gathering of “young entrepreneurs,” hosting four or five African leaders together at once for a photo op at the White House, and making a mere one or two visits to the continent at the presidential level per term, we’ll be failing to engage the continent’s potential and simply missing out.

To read the entire interview, please follow this link.

Gayle Smith, President Obama’s nominee for a key post reveals the bankruptcy of Washington’s thinking on Africa.

As Washington loses ground to other global players in Africa there is a desperate need for something different, for new ideas. Gayle Smith’s background is bound up in past failures and in a lowering of the United States’ sights in that part of the world.

Copyright Foreign Policy

When President Obama recently nominated Gayle Smith to be the next administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, many members of the country’s small Africa-related foreign policy community howled.

Though USAID isn’t an Africa-specific bureaucracy, the agency focuses disproportionately on the continent because of its development mission. After the Pentagon, which has quietly come to dominate American policy toward Africa in recent decades, no other part of the U.S. government has as big a footprint in Africa as USAID.

Smith’s critics, myself included, have objected to the fact that over the years, this former journalist has been a conspicuous backer of authoritarian regimes in places like Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Rwanda. When I first made this point publicly, a former White House staffer offered a disconcertingly ambivalent response: “I’m not sure if there were more compelling candidates out there,” he said.

He may well be right – and the reason for the lack of qualified personnel is a direct consequence of Washington’s long failure to devise a coherent policy toward Africa. Smith’s rise in Washington over the last 20-plus years bespeaks a steady hollowing out of American policy toward the continent, which began with the Clinton administration’s response to the so-called Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia in 1993, when 18 U.S. soldiers died in a botched humanitarian intervention.

The Clinton Administration drew a simple lesson from the disaster: avoid direct exposure to African crises at all costs.

The Clinton Administration drew a simple lesson from the disaster: avoid direct exposure to African crises at all costs. In the years that followed, the United States began to redefine its national interests on the continent in almost purely defensive terms. Africa presented a threat of contagious disease and of explosive political or humanitarian crises, and little more; it needed, more or less, to be quarantined. Washington had no vision of Africa as a place of economic opportunity (with the possible exception of the oil and gas sector), and treated the continent – apart from a select group of autocratic partners admired for their supposed order and efficiency – as a place of starkly limited human potential.

 

In a vivid demonstration of his administration’s apathy, Clinton’s first secretary of state, Warren Christopher, didn’t even visit the continent until 1996, close to the end of his four-year tenure. I covered his trip to Mali, a country that had recently turned into a surprisingly vibrant democracy, and was struck by the demonstrative air of boredom with which he dispatched the obligatory protocol.

At one point I found myself in a car with George Moose, Christopher’s Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, an old school diplomat of African-American descent. When I asked Moose if Washington could be expected to find special ways to favor the crop of new democracies that had recently sprouted up around the continent, he replied unsmilingly, “Virtue is its own reward.” A senior member of the State Department policy planning staff at the time told me that Moose had received a simple instruction from his superiors: “Keep Africa off the screen. It doesn’t matter.”

Two years earlier, the Clinton administration’s instinct toward quarantine had lead to Washington’s tragic and deeply shameful efforts to prevent any designation of the outbreak of bloodshed in Rwanda in 1994 as a genocide in order to avoid having to commit the United States in any way there. Details of this story have emerged slowly ever since, with the picture growing steadily uglier. Newly declassified documents show how Clinton officials urged Belgium to withdraw its modest United Nations peacekeeping contingent from Rwanda at the outset of the genocide so that the United States would not be drawn into the violence. This all but guaranteed the crisis in Rwanda would spin out of control.

Less well known, however, is the story of how this stance of not-so benign neglect gradually gave way to another, far more proactive policy. The new approach — pushed by Christopher’s successor Madeleine Albright — amounted to anointing and strongly promoting a group of authoritarian leaders who could, it was thought, best preempt conflict and preserve American interests in the region.

In 1997, George Moose was replaced by an energetic young diplomat named Susan Rice, today Obama’s national security adviser, who shared Albright’s belief that a bunch of supposedly enlightened dictators were the key to peace and stability. In promoting democracy in most other parts of the world, the United States has often touted the notion that democratically governed countries don’t fight wars against each other. In Africa, however, the Clintonites took precisely the opposite tack, operating under the assumption that autocrats were the safer bet. Gayle Smith played a big part in the shift in policy.

It was Smith who replaced Rice on the National Security Council as senior director for African affairs during the second Clinton term. Having never pursued serious academic study of Africa,

Smith obtained the post largely by virtue of her co-authorship of a 92-page pamphlet entitled The Hidden Revolution.

Smith obtained the post largely by virtue of her co-authorship of a 92-page pamphlet entitled The Hidden Revolution.Published in 1982, it’s neither journalism nor scholarship, but rather an unskeptical and thinly sourced paean to rebel administration in zones occupied by the Tigraean People’s Liberation Front, the Marxist-Leninist movement that later took over Ethiopia. Her publishing record is worth mentioning because it’s difficult to imagine someone dealing with any other major region of the world rising to a comparable position in Washington on such a spotty basis.

 

Smith has been widely credited with playing a central role in promoting what became the Albright approach to Africa: working through a clutch of favored authoritarians to keep the peace and get things done. And her own connection, via her experience in the Horn of Africa, was with the highly autocratic leaders of that region.

Albright announced America’s new approach to Africa during a high-profile visit to Ethiopia in December 1997. “Africa’s best new leaders have brought a new spirit of hope and accomplishment to your countries – and that spirit is sweeping across the continent,” she declared. “They share an energy, a self-reliance and a determination to shape their own destinies… They are challenging the United States to get over the paternalism of the past: to stop thinking of its Africa policy as a none-too-successful rescue service; and to begin seizing opportunities to work with Africans to transform their continent.”

The new approach was consecrated by President Clinton’s trip to the continent in March 1998. During his visit to Uganda he gathered around him the key members of what administration officials began describing as Africa’s “new leaders” (or “renaissance leaders”). Just a few years earlier, during the presidency of George H.W. Bush, a cadre of American ambassadors had made waves on the continent by pushing hard for democracy in places like Kenya, Mozambique, and in certain former French colonies. Partly as a result, by the early Clinton years competitive elections were becoming commonplace in Africa for the first time.

Now, with Clinton’s visit to Uganda, the change in policy direction meant that

Washington was celebrating a group whose members had all won power by the gun.

Washington was celebrating a group whose members had all won power by the gun. What is more, to one degree or another, they were all openly hostile to the idea of meaningfully competitive multi-party politics. Nonetheless, to great fanfare, Clinton signed with them what was called the “Entebbe Principles,” promising long-term, meaningful engagement.”

 

The subsequent history that laid bare American naiveté was not long in unfolding. In order to understand it best, though, once must first identify the members of this nascent club. The best known among them in this country is Paul Kagame, the man who has led Rwanda ever since the genocide there, and who is now widely believed to be engineering a prolongation of his presidency beyond the constitutionally permitted two-term limit. Isaias Afwerki, in power since 1991, is the leader of Eritrea, one of the most oppressive dictatorships in the world, and a major source of refugees fleeing the continent across the Mediterranean. Yoweri Museveni has ruled Uganda since winning power there at the head of an insurgency in 1986. The late Laurent Kabila was a roguish revolutionary plucked out of obscurity by Rwanda and placed in power after its invasion of Zaire (later renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo).

Finally there was Meles Zenawi, who ruled Ethiopia for 17 years before dying in 2012. Meles enjoyed something approaching a cult following in some Western aid circles, partly because of his reputed intelligence, and partly because they admired his tightly controlled regime’s expeditious ways. Smith, who was personally close to Meles, delivered a eulogy for him at an Ethiopian memorial service (as, indeed, did Rice).

Just three months after the Clinton trip to Uganda that enshrined Africa’s heroic soldier princes, Washington’s new approach to the continent began to unravel. Ethiopia and Eritrea, two of the world’s poorest countries, fought a disastrous border war that killed over 100,000 people. Two months after that, Rwanda and Uganda joined in a second invasion of the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where they sought to overthrow the man they had installed barely a year earlier, Laurent Kabila.

The two Rwandan-led interventions in DRC, both provided generous political cover by Washington, fostered a mood of impunity in Kagame, whose mostly Tutsi soldiers were later shown by the United Nations to have pursued a campaign of extermination of hundreds of thousands of Hutu in DRC, the vast majority of them non-combatants. On top of this, Rwanda and Uganda soon fought a bloody mini-war in DRC over control of an illicit trade in minerals and other war booty from that country. All told, the DRC is reckoned today to have lost more than five million of its citizens to these conflicts.

“If we think about this long story about how the new African leaders experience broke down in conflict, what we’re left with is people like Susan and Gayle, and a unity of vision,” said Peter Rosenblum, a longtime Africa specialist at Bard College. “They came in very young and untested, and produced a policy based basically on war and on personalities.”

Gayle Smith should certainly not stand alone to answer for this horrible record, for which the American foreign policy establishment has never given anything like a proper reckoning.

Gayle Smith should certainly not stand alone to answer for this horrible record, for which the American foreign policy establishment has never given anything like a proper reckoning. One of the reasons for that, though, is the persistence of people like Smith, and her patron, Susan Rice, in positions of high authority. Another, equally pernicious, is the general disinterest that Africa receives from the foreign policy thinkers.

 

As a region of the world, Africa is virtually alone in being consigned to people with thin expertise and little policy background or clout to shape and guide American diplomacy. Top Africa jobs have often become a kind of sop for African Americans within the bureaucracy. Celebrities like Bono, George Clooney, and Ben Affleck are looked to help set priorities and galvanize public interest. That this should be necessary must be seen as a failure of the policy establishment itself to think more creatively and with more ambition about such a large part of the world.

There is one country that has not failed in its imagination about Africa in the last decade or so, and it happens to be the leading global competitor of the United States: China.

There is one country that has not failed in its imagination about Africa in the last decade or so, and it happens to be the leading global competitor of the United States: China. And it is China’s booming interests in Africa, and the appetite for African business that has been created in its wake in any number of other middle or rising powers — countries from Brazil and Turkey to Malaysia and Vietnam — that underscore the second major objection to the Smith appointment.

 

Africa has 1.1 billion people today. By the middle of this century, it will almost certainly count over two billion. By the end of the century, Africa will astoundingly have between three and five billion people. The continent is presently urbanizing faster than any other part of the world. Its GDP is growing at least as fast as Asia’s – though few Americans have noticed. Its middle classes are already larger than India’s. Here, one finds irony in the way China has pursued an ideological competition with Washington in Africa, portraying itself as the non-judgmental foreign power that won’t get involved in other countries’ internal affairs, least of all questions of democracy.

The United States has paid an enormous price to its credibility in Africa for its readiness to preach about democracy with states that are deemed relatively insignificant, while making little public fuss on the subject with long-favored authoritarians and deeply corrupt petro-states like Angola and Equatorial Guinea. Meanwhile, it has utterly failed to understand Africa in terms of its immense upsides, as a place of tremendous opportunities. In economic matters, Washington has made little effort to compete with China and other outside powers in Africa — something that most Africans would greatly welcome and which would be beneficial to all.

When I learned of Smith’s nomination, I re-listened to a public conversationwe had in 2004, and was intrigued to hear her lament the lack of “policy tools” available to the United States in Africa. She was speaking about democracy, and to me, this came across more like a shrug of resignation than the statement of a creative policymaker determined to find solutions.

As Washington loses ground to other global players in Africa there is a desperate need for something different, for new ideas. Gayle Smith’s background is bound up in past failures and in a lowering of the United States’ sights in that part of the world. There’s nothing there to suggest that she’s prepared to draw the necessary consequences.

 

 

From Quarantine To Appeasement

High Stakes in Africa: Can the U.S. Catch China?

Although at a glance Africa still looks overwhelmingly poor, it’s recently become the fastest-growing region of the world, and its share of global gross domestic product has increased to 4.1 percent, from 3.4 percent in 2000—a trend that figures to accelerate. Africa already has a middle class larger than India’s, albeit a balkanized one.

Copyright Bloomberg Business Week

High Stakes in Africa: Can the U.S. Catch China?


To be attentive to history is to be on the lookout for pivotal moments, and in the geopolitics surrounding Africa, the 1990s stand out as a hugely pivotal time.

With the Cold War scarcely over, the West turned its attention away from the continent, largely defining its problems as humanitarian issues, which are traditionally the lowest station of foreign policy priorities. Western Europe, which had colonized Africa decades earlier, reoriented its focus to Eastern Europe, attracted by what it saw as large, capital-starved markets with well-educated workers who would nonetheless be satisfied being paid bargain-basement wages by the standards of that continent.

The U.S. took a different route. With a focus dominated by security, it invested its energy and treasure in a series of interventions in the greater Middle East, leading to a series of costly and inconclusive wars in the Islamic world.

In the 1990s, China’s economic reforms were just beginning to rev up, and the People’s Republic was able to survey the world with the fresh eyes that an emergence from a long period of relative isolation brings. The leadership understood that the good run the country had enjoyed since opening its economy to foreign investment in the 1980s could carry it only so far, and that to sustain growth, China had to hold its own in the global economy by finding new international markets. In 1996 the Chinese committed to a policy known simply as Going Out and selected Africa as a priority zone for expansion.

Many people who have focused on China’s burgeoning ties with Africa since then have made the easy mistake of believing the country’s strategy is mostly a natural resources play. They’ve missed the big picture of why Africa has become so important to China and of why this is so relevant to the U.S. and other big, globalized economies that may now have to hustle to get into the Africa game.

Africa’s resource wealth is certainly of huge importance to China, a manufacturing superpower that is urbanizing and building infrastructure on an unprecedented scale. Unlike Western powers, however, China sees raw materials as only one of the three pillars of its Africa strategy. The second pillar involves using Africa as a springboard to help Chinese businesses emerge as global players.

Over the past decade, Chinese companies have built bulging order books in Africa, cutting their teeth in a part of the world where Western competitors, when present at all, have not brought their A team. The Chinese astutely calculate that the wealth they accumulate in Africa and the lessons they learn will serve them well as they push into bigger, richer, and tougher markets. Examples of this strategy are particularly abundant in telecommunications, where companies such as Tecno (cell phones) and ZTE (000063:CH) (mobile phone infrastructure) have relied on Africa in part to launch themselves globally.

Boasting scores of already mature multinational corporations, Western countries would not be mistaken to think they had relatively little to learn from this aspect of China’s expansion into Africa. The third pillar of Beijing’s strategy, though, could well become the game changer. Understanding that, for the remainder of the century, the bulk of global population growth will take place in Africa, China is making a long bet on the emergence of vibrant, high-consuming middle classes there, and with each year this wager is looking smarter and smarter.

Although at a glance Africa still looks overwhelmingly poor, it’s recently become the fastest-growing region of the world, and its share of global gross domestic product has increased to 4.1 percent, from 3.4 percent in 2000—a trend that figures to accelerate. Africa already has a middle class larger than India’s, albeit a balkanized one. And as the economic emergence continues, it will benefit more and more from new technologies that will allow it to leapfrog communication and infrastructure hurdles.

For the entire article, please click here.

French is an associate professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and the author of China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa.

Book Review: ‘China’s Second Continent’ by Howard W. French: Africa’s New Imperial Power

All great powers have interests they wish to defend, and China is no different. The judgment that China is creating a new empire in Africa is fair if we bear in mind the great variety of forms an empire can take. Indeed, the migration of Chinese people to Africa, as Mr. French notes, “provides the most striking parallels with imperial patterns of the past.” But the Chinese government will doubtless discover, if they don’t know it already, that African politicians are particularly adept at leveraging great-power influence for their own purposes.

Copyright The Wall Street Journal

June 6, 2014 5:23 p.m. ET

Two hundred billion dollars. That was the estimated value of China’s trade with Africa in 2012—more than 20 times the amount at the start of the century. Such is the continent’s importance to China these days that the Chinese construction industry is reckoned to get nearly a third of its total revenues from contracts there.

But the China-Africa relationship is not just about construction and commodity deals, many of them barter operations whereby an African country gets a road or a sports stadium in return for signing away mineral exports for a given numbers of years. Perhaps a million Chinese have settled in Africa. Many are company workers who stay on after their contracts lapse, others are independent arrivals seeking their fortunes as farmers, miners, retail traders and even prostitutes. That is a big change from just 20 years ago, when a mere handful of Africa’s more than 50 countries had a Chinese diaspora population.

Dug In A supervisor for a Chinese engineering company instructs Zambian workers. Getty Images

China’s Second Continent

By Howard W. French
Knopf, 285 pages, $27.95

No one is better qualified to write on this subject than Howard W. French. A journalist who has been criss-crossing Africa for nearly 40 years, he learned Mandarin while working in China as chief of the New York Times’s Shanghai bureau. This double expertise enables him to place the Chinese settlers he meets in both an Asian and an African context. His method is the reporter’s classic technique of using in-depth interviews with select individuals—from entrepreneurs to diplomats—to make points about what the Chinese are doing in Africa and how their presence is changing the continent fundamentally.

Portraits of entrepreneurs form the heart of “China’s Second Continent.” The chapters are arranged by country, from Mozambique in the east to Senegal in the west with seven countries in between. While Chinese are in Africa to make money, the ways they do this run the gamut from petty trade in Senegal to industrial copper mining in Zambia.

Africa seems to have acquired an El Dorado status in China. “We discovered the country online,” a Chinese storekeeper, bored by small-town life in Mozambique, says. When Mr. French asks her why she left China she responds bluntly: “I had to make a living.” Mr. French observes that “many Chinese have grumbled to me about the unbearable stresses and the tensions of daily life back home, about the lack of rights, the deficiencies in the rule of law, and injustices of every kind.” Still, quite a few settlers reveal a streak of racism as they complain that Africans are lazy or incompetent. Many boast of their own ability to “eat bitter” by enduring hardship, as a fair number of older settlers did during the traumatic Cultural Revolution of 1966-76.

China’s rise as a power in Africa dates from the ruling Communist party’s 1978 decision to allow individual landholding, enabling peasants to sell most of their produce. This was followed by a liberalization of markets, the growth of export industries and a reorientation of foreign policy to secure markets and sources of supply. By coincidence, Africa was also undergoing great waves of reform during the final years of the 20th century. The first major reforms were economic, urged on African countries by the World Bank and Western donors. Most African countries were obliged to float their currencies, abolish subsidies, open up markets and privatize state companies.

This was accompanied by a second wave of reforms in the 1990s, when states were exhorted to adopt multi-party democracy. At just this moment China was getting serious about scouting Africa for commodities and commercial opportunities, a shift known as the “go out” policy. “This was the blunt watchword that Beijing gave to Chinese state-owned corporations, and the provincial governments that often controlled them, to begin scouring the globe in search of business opportunities,” Mr. French writes. Because Africa was mostly overlooked by the West, “the pickings were plentiful and often seemed easy.”

Large-scale migration of private entrepreneurs from China to Africa followed. In Zambia, Mr. French meets a 62-year-old Chinese settler who has made a fortune from copper mining in 10 years. In Senegal, we are introduced to another settler who had the good fortune to arrive at an early date and to make money in the import-export business. More recent arrivals are stuck in petty trade along the main streets of Dakar, Senegal’s capital city.

The next three or four decades will reveal the consequences of Chinese engagement. Some African countries, like Angola and Nigeria, are among the world’s fastest growing economies, and some African governments, including these same two, plus Ghana, Zambia and Rwanda, are now offering dollar- or Euro-denominated bonds on financial markets. Western financiers like what they see in places like these. The big question is whether an improved financial outlook can help create jobs for the ever-greater number of Africans who are graduating from high school each year.

In the last 70 or 80 years, Africa has had the most rapid population growth of any multi-state region in the history of the world, and if present trends continue, most African countries will double their present population in the next 40 years. Take Uganda: It had 6.8 million people in 1960 and 35 million a couple of years ago. By 2060, the U.N. projects it will be almost 113 million.

Such growth is why Wal-Mart WMT -0.14% and other major chains are setting up shop in Africa. Wal-Mart, via its majority stake in Massmart Holdings Ltd.MSM.JO -0.40% , operates more than 350 stores in 12 countries south of the Sahara. The French retailer Carrefour is on course to have shops in eight African countries by 2015. Simply put, the money Africa is making from exporting commodities to China is being used by an ever-growing number of people to buy imported consumer goods. But—and here’s the rub—by midcentury, many African countries will have largely depleted their reserves of iron ore, bauxite, copper, cobalt and so on.

The big question is whether at least some countries will use high commodity prices and booming demand to develop the means to employ and feed all those people. It’s a fair bet that some will do quite well, while others will not, leaving them prey to conditions that are not pleasant to think about. But whether the outcome is good or bad, China’s role will be crucial—and the Chinese government is certainly contemplating that future. In his chapter on Mali, a generally dry country that nevertheless contains three million acres of sparsely populated, fertile farmland watered by the Niger River, Mr. French tells us that the Chinese government, accustomed to thinking big, has its eye on growing food there for its own population in years to come. In Zambia, China is set for the long haul. In other words: as long as there is copper to be mined.

“For all of China’s denials that its overseas ambitions could be compared to those of Europeans or Americans,” Mr. French writes, “. . . what I was witnessing in Africa is the higgledy-piggledy cobbling together of a new Chinese realm of interest. Here were the beginnings of a new empire.” Certainly some of the Chinese officials Mr. French meets feel this way: “I haven’t seen any roads being built,” a Chinese ambassador mockingly remarks about lack of American influence.

Chinese settlers will surely play a key role in the evolving Sino-African relationship. Even in the heyday of the European empires, not many people left the colonial metropoles to settle in Africa. The main exceptions were Algeria and southern Africa. Nearly all of Algeria’s million European settlers moved back to Europe at the time of independence in 1962. South Africa is a more complex case, as a fair proportion of its white population of 4.5 million—these days, distinctly nervous about their future—is descended from migrants who came as long as three and a half centuries ago, while the country is also home to a large community of Asian origin. Looking at the political use that can be made of the presence of just a few thousand white farmers in Zimbabwe, whose government finds it useful to represent them as so many agents of Western imperialism, it becomes clear just how explosive the settler issue can be. And let us not forget the summary expulsion of Asians by Uganda’s Idi Amin in 1972, or the many examples of migrants from one African country to another who have suffered in various pogroms.

The greater the Chinese settler population, and the more it is entrenched, the greater the risk of a political backlash. We read in these pages of a 2006 incident in Zambia when miners were shot by a Chinese manager, and demonstrations in Senegal two years earlier. If times get bad, Chinese settlers in Africa will be looking to their government for help. Mr. French concludes that “there are growing signs that for some the honeymoon” is already over.

All great powers have interests they wish to defend, and China is no different. The judgment that China is creating a new empire in Africa is fair if we bear in mind the great variety of forms an empire can take. Indeed, the migration of Chinese people to Africa, as Mr. French notes, “provides the most striking parallels with imperial patterns of the past.” But the Chinese government will doubtless discover, if they don’t know it already, that African politicians are particularly adept at leveraging great-power influence for their own purposes.

—Mr. Ellis is a historian at the African Studies Centre in Leiden, the Netherlands, and the author of “Season of Rains: Africa in the World.”

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