China has for decades had a diplomatic policy of good neighbourliness towards Southeast Asia and beyond, but its military rise has seemingly been at odds with its doctrine of peaceful co-existence. While leaders on foreign trips have stressed the need for good relations, a growing rivalry for resources and a lack of transparency in defence matters have created tension and mistrust, not closer ties. The widening gap has been recognised by the People's Liberation Army, which has launched a charm offensive to ease concerns. If the effort is to have any meaning, though, the smiles and handshakes have to be backed by more than mere rhetoric. It is all a matter of playing a different tune, something the PLA has not had a good record of when it comes to suspicious neighbours. After more than a decade of double-digit growth in military spending and the unveiling of ever-better submarines and aircraft and, most likely this year, an aircraft carrier, an arms race is firmly under way. Relations with the US, rarely even-keeled, are only now back on track after President Hu Jintao's visit to Washington in January. The effort has been given meaningful backing with the week-long US tour of the first top-level PLA delegation in seven years, led by chief of general staff, General Chen Bingde. Chen has agreed with his US counterpart, navy admiral Mike Mullen, to use a special telephone link to maintain communications and for their militaries to conduct a joint humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercise next year. They are small, but symbolic, steps in moving relations forward. So, too, was Beijing's approval of last week's visit to Hong Kong by the nuclear-powered submarine USS Hampton and that this week of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, the ship that buried Muslim extremist Osama bin Laden at sea. These are the decisions that suggest progress can be made. And there is certainly need for that with the potential for a military misstep with China's growing naval strength and the US' continued strong presence in Asia. Chen's trip comes after a string of visits to Southeast Asian countries in the past six months by senior military officials. Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia have been on their agendas. There have been glowing compliments and pledges to work more closely. It is what should be expected from a nation with growing power and aspirations. The PLA's effort to show a more positive face is a promising development. Only through frank discussion can China begin to appease the concerns of the region and the US. More contact and inter-military co-operation, such as through joint exercises, will help further understanding. But being a good neighbour also involves being open and transparent. Tensions will not substantially ease until Beijing demonstrates its intentions are for the common good.