China is moving behind-the-scenes toward establishing a major naval port on the west coast of Africa that would host Chinese submarines and aircraft carriers capable of projecting Beijing‘s military power directly into the Atlantic, a top U.S. military official warned on Thursday.

The top commander for U.S. military operations in Africa said Chinese officials have been approaching countries stretching from Mauritania to south of Namibia in search of where to position the naval facility.

“They’re looking for a place where they can rearm and repair warships. That becomes militarily useful in conflict,” U.S. Gen. Stephen Townsend said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Gen. Townsend, who heads the Pentagon’s Africa Command, added that China‘s military is already close to establishing such a facility in Djibouti, which is situated more than 2,000 miles away in the Horn of Africa on the Indian Ocean side of the continent.

“Now they’re casting their gaze to the Atlantic coast and wanting to get such a base there,” the general said in the interview.

The comments caused a stir among China watchers in Washington, some of whom said the American public should awaken to a reality the Pentagon has been quietly warning about for the past several years: Authoritarian communist government-run China is emerging as a global military power.

“It’s just a matter of time before you have regular surface and subsurface Chinese naval vessels in the Atlantic,” Bradley Bowman, who heads the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told The Washington Times on Thursday.

“Americans need to know that’s coming and the question is what do we do between now and then to get ready,” Mr. Bowman said, adding that Gen. Townsend‘s warning should give U.S. policymakers pause as they debate defense spending priorities in the Biden era.

Thursday’s warning came roughly two weeks after the general sought to draw the attention of U.S. lawmakers to Beijing‘s expanding activities in Africa. 

China‘s “activities in Africa are outpacing those of the United States and our allies as they seek resources and markets to feed economic growth in China and leverage economic tools to increase their global reach and influence,” Gen. Townsend testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee April 22.

In prepared remarks, he noted that Beijing has pledged to deliver some $60 billion in infrastructure and development loans to an array of African countries in recent years.