Philippine President Rodrigo Roa Duterte touched down in Beijing on Tuesday evening for a portentous four-day state visit at the invitation of President Xi Jinping.
The trip offered "a long overdue opportunity for the two nations, which enjoy longstanding friendship, to heal the wounds of the past few years and steer their relationship back to the right course," the official Xinhua news agency said on Tuesday.
Duterte and Xi plan to sign a range of bilateral trade and investment agreements when they meet on Thursday.
In choosing China for his first diplomatic destination outside South-East Asia, Duterte signalled a fissure of global implications for President Barack Obama's pivot to Asia.
Representing a nation where 93 per cent of people in a Pew Center survey expressed a favourable opinion of the US, the newly elected Philippine leader has vowed to break with the traditional ally of 65 years.
The trip is "a key turning point," Duterte said on departure.
Six months ago, presidential candidate "Duterte Harry" was joking about a jet ski and sticking a flag on contested islands in the South China Sea.
Territorial disputes have increased in the region as China lays claim to much of the South China Sea and the islands and rocky outcrops located there. In addition to the Philippines, China has disputes with Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia and Vietnam.
But in the three months since his election, the 71-year-old Asian strongman has been watering down his country's claims such that a supreme court justice warned him last month it was an "impeachable offence" to surrender sovereignty.
Duterte said he would not bargain anything away as he could not give away what was not his, but on the other hand, he told Xinhua on Monday, "there is no sense in going to war. There is no sense fighting over a body of water. It is better to talk than war."
The top Philippine leader also extended his gratitude to China for supporting his war on drugs.
Mainland China tycoon Huang Rulun is funding a rehabilitation centre for thousands of drug users who surrender to police.
Other countries refused to help, Duterte complained.
The US, EU, UN and human rights groups have all lambasted Duterte's bloody campaign for a wave of extrajudicial killings and vigilantism.
"All they had to do was just to criticize. China never criticizes. They help us quietly," Duterte told Xinhua.
"My grandfather is Chinese," Duterte said, "It's only China that can help us."