The world's biggest mining company, BHP Billiton (NYSE:BHP), is beginning to see an improving iron ore market, following a year of ups and downs with its Chinese steelmaker customers.

Beyond that, according to Friday's Wall Street Journal, BHP peer Rio Tinto (NYSE:RTP) intends to continue with an iron ore joint venture that the two companies have cooked up in the Philbara region of western Australia. The deal, which has yet to receive all of its necessary permitting, could save the pair more than $10 billion. But some believe that Rio has gotten cold feet regarding the deal since its fortunes have begun to improve. Along with Brazil's Vale (NYSE:VALE), BHP and Rio already control a majority of the world's iron ore, while China is the largest steel producer.

It appears that the improvement in commodity prices since the first quarter of this year has been led by a recovery in China. At the same time, there have been some lesser improvements in iron ore demand in other parts of the globe. The timing of the improvement is fortuitous in that BHP and its peers are in the process of beginning their yearly round of iron ore price contract talks with major steelmakers.

Two years ago, ore prices rose dramatically in concert with skyrocketing commodities prices. Last year, however, with commodities prices heading south, ore prices similarly slid. It seems this year's betting should again be on price escalations.

But iron ore isn't the only  mining product where the light is brightening. Copper, for instance, has seen its prices more than double this year -- much to the delight of shareholders in producers like Freeport-McMoRan (NYSE:FCX).

And there are those who believe that demand for aluminum will continue to expand in Asia next year. Barclays Capital is predicting the highest rise in aluminum prices in the past decade-and-a-half. No wonder shares of Alcoa (NYSE:AA) and Kaiser Aluminum (NASDAQ:KALU) have been moving up nicely since March.

What's the best way to play this improving mining picture? My belief continues to be that BHP, with its robust balance sheet and sizable energy component, should be attractive to Fools with a bent for natural resources. Indeed, it also doesn't tax one's imagination to assume that the company could benefit from a major acquisition in the not-too-distant future.

BHP Billiton has been rated a four-star company by Motley Fool CAPS players. With its improving picture, why not head for its CAPS page and add your opinion?

Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned above. He does welcome and encourage your comments. The Fool has a disclosure policy.