EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska (CNN) - Defense Secretary James Mattis said the Pentagon is in "close alignment" with the Department of Homeland Security with efforts to utilize military bases to house undocumented immigrants along the southern US border.
The Department of Homeland Security has "come to us asking us to build temporary camps on two of our bases," Mattis told reporters on board his plane at the beginning of a trip that will take him to Alaska, China, South Korea and Japan.
"We are in a logistics support response mode," with DHS, Mattis said, adding that "details are still being worked out" with respect to how the Pentagon's role in the operation will play out, while likening the response to the Defense Department providing housing to Vietnamese refugees rescued at sea in the years after the Vietnam War and for victims of hurricanes and other natural disasters.
"This is something that we can do again, whether it be refugee boat people from Vietnam, people that have been knocked out of their homes by a hurricane, absolutely it's appropriate to provide logistical support however it's needed," Mattis said of his department's role in the effort.
Health and Human Services officials have toured four US military bases in Texas and Arkansas as possible locations.
Mattis in Asia
While this will be Mattis' seventh trip to the Indo-Pacific region, it will be his first ever visit to mainland China, though he said he visited Hong Kong when it was a British administered territory.
There is no shortage of topics of discussion on military focused issues with China at a time when Beijing is on an aggressive pace of militarization in the South China Sea, something the United States and its allies view as dangerously provocative.
Before Mattis departed on the trip, a senior defense official described the Chinese posture in the South China Sea as "consistent sustained efforts," going from land reclamation to an increased effort in recent years to move in weapons systems, and said there has been "no change in direction," on that front.
While there are some areas of convergence between Washington and Beijing, such as the goal of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, there are a variety of irritants in the relationship, from the South China Sea to the status of Taiwan, that are likely to be raised.
"Going forward, we obviously look at the actions of China, but I am going there to do a lot of listening and identification of common ground and uncommon ground on the strategic level at this time," Mattis said of his visit to China, adding that he hopes to establish a "transparent strategic dialogue" with his Chinese interlocutors.
"I did not want to immediately go in with a certain preset expectation of what they are going to say," he said, while declining to specifically enumerate his expectations for the outcome of his meetings in China. "I want to go in and do a lot of listening. I will be very clear about what we see developing, but that's the whole reason I am making the trip instead of just sitting in Washington reading news reports, intelligence reports or analyst reports."
His brief visit to South Korea comes on the heels of a summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore earlier this month. Mattis said he was optimistic that North Korea will soon make good on its pledge at the summit to repatriate the remains of missing US soldiers from the Korean War.
While he plans to meet with South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo in Seoul, Mattis said the discussion will focus on the "way ahead" with the goal of North Korean denuclearization and other issues of cooperation between the militaries of both countries following the the US suspension of military exercises after the Singapore summit.
Mattis will also meet with the Japanese defense minister in Tokyo, where the conversation will include Japanese concerns of the threat posed by North Korean short- and medium-range missiles and other issues of regional concern.
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