WASHINGTON (Reuters) - China will be able to place armed forces at a Cambodian naval base under a secret agreement the two nations have reached, the Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday.
The agreement, reached this spring but not made public, gives China exclusive access to part of Cambodia's Ream Naval Base on the Gulf of Thailand, reported the Journal, citing U.S. and allied officials familiar with the matter.
Such an arrangement would give China an enhanced ability to assert contested territorial claims and economic interests in the South China Sea, challenging U.S. allies in Southeast Asia. Chinese and Cambodian officials denied such an agreement existed, according to the Journal.
In a statement, the State Department urged Cambodia to reject such an arrangement, saying the nation had a "constitutional commitment to its people to pursue an independent foreign policy."
"We are concerned that any steps by the Cambodian government to invite a foreign military presence in Cambodia would threaten the coherence and centrality of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in coordinating regional developments, and disturb peace and stability in Southeast Asia," the statement added.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Defense Department suggested China may be attempting to gain a military foothold in Cambodia in a letter to Cambodia asking why the nation had turned down an offer to repair a naval base.
(Reporting by Pete Schroeder and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Peter Cooney)