US President Donald Trump is set to sit down for a formal meeting with Rodrigo Duterte today, Nov. 13, as ties warm a year after the Philippine leader cursed out Barack Obama and publicly pivoted toward China.

Trump and Duterte shook hands Monday morning before a ceremony to open two days of meetings in Manila hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. At a gala dinner the night before, Duterte sang a Filipino love song “upon the orders of the commander-in-chief of the United States,” according to a video posted on Twitter by a Philippine government official.

The bonhomie between the leaders stands in contrast to a year ago, when Duterte blasted Obama for criticizing his war on drugs that has left thousands dead. He subsequently pivoted toward China, de-escalating tensions with Beijing over their competing South China Sea claims and winning $24 billion worth of Chinese loans and investment into the Philippines.

Ties with the US, a longstanding Philippine security ally, improved after Trump took office. After an April phone call between Trump and Duterte, the White House said the Philippines is “fighting very hard to rid its country of drugs.” The tough-talking Duterte, famed for his profanity-riddled outbursts, has spoken warmly of Trump, saying this month that their mouths move “in the same cadence.”

US drones, surveillance and intelligence eventually helped Philippine forces clear Marawi City in the nation’s south from Islamic State-linked terrorists. And on Sunday, Trump offered to help resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea involving the Philippines, Vietnam, China and other claimants.

“I am a very good mediator and a very good arbitrator,” Trump said Sunday in Hanoi ahead of a meeting with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang. “If I can be of help in any way, let me know.”

Both the Philippines and Vietnam have recently seen China disrupt oil-and-gas exploration in disputed areas of the South China Sea. While the U.S. doesn’t take a position on territorial disputes, it has criticized China for land reclamation and other moves to assert control over areas also claimed in part by Southeast Asian countries.

It was unclear if Trump’s offhand remark signaled a more proactive U.S. role in finding a solution to one of Asia’s biggest flashpoints. Trump has primarily focused his attention on North Korea’s nuclear program, a shift from the Obama administration’s more aggressive stance against China’s activities in the South China Sea.

‘Good Mediator’
Quang didn’t answer directly when asked about Trump’s offer at a press briefing, saying only that Vietnam wanted to settle disputes through “peaceful negotiations” in accordance with international law. The Philippines cautiously welcomed Trump’s offer, with officials saying that any effort would need to be coordinated among other countries in the region.

It’s a “very kind and generous offer because he is a good mediator,” Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano told reporters in Manila. “He is the master of the art of the deal.”

Duterte warned Sunday that a war over the waterway would devastate the region. He said that Chinese President Xi Jinping told him on Saturday that he also didn’t want to “waste the lives of my countrymen for a useless war that cannot be won by anyone.”

“The South China Sea is better left untouched,” Duterte said. “Nobody can afford to go to war.”

China opposes U.S. involvement in resolving the disputes, preferring to settle them through one-on-one talks with other nations. Relations between China and the Philippines have opened a new chapter after Duterte’s visit in October, China’s official Xinhua News Agency quoted Xi as saying after the meeting.

The 10-nation Asean is set to announce Monday the start of negotiations with China on a code of conduct for the South China Sea, the Philippines said in a statement. The talks have made little progress since the nations agreed formally to work toward a code in 2002. — Bloomberg