It's always darkest before the dawn.

At the moment when widespread hopes for a steady U.S. recovery were dashed by a cruel menagerie of persistent headwinds -- and with Europe gripped by crisis -- even the new center of the economic universe threatened to abandon investors in their time of need.

China's Shanghai Composite Index tumbled 24% during the second quarter, and the declining stocks of major raw material exporters like Teck (NYSE: TCK) and BHP Billiton (NYSE: BHP) echoed the perception of a sharp pullback in Chinese industrial activity.

For investors wondering whether any corner of the planet could offer an oasis of reliable growth, not a glimpse of light shone through the darkness. That is, until coal miner Peabody Energy (NYSE: BTU) waltzed into earnings season with a rock-solid quarter and a promise of greater strength.

In fact, even Peabody's prior bullish call for 300 million tons of new thermal coal demand annually (resulting from new power plants coming online in 2010) appears to have fallen short of the true expansion. While raising that forecast for fresh demand to 340 million tons, the company also raised its full-year EBITDA and earnings-per-share guidance. Second-quarter EPS rose dramatically to $0.76, and third-quarter results could raise that bar another 30% at the higher range of the forecast.

To service this increasing demand from China, India, and throughout the Pacific Rim, Peabody remains committed to boosting Australian production toward the 40-million-ton mark by 2014. In its acquisition bid for Macarthur Coal, the company sought to purchase some of that productive capacity, but Peabody remains in the hunt for alternative assets. Meanwhile, the miner delivered a 28% increase in Australian shipments for the second quarter while expanding its margin by a robust 42%.

Peabody also offers a touch of context for the recent deterioration in commodity prices that seems to have roiled so much confidence in the pan-Asian growth story. Peabody affirms: "International markets continued to strengthen in the second quarter, led by rising imports in China, India and the recovering developed economies in Asia." Indeed, the benchmark price for met coal for the third quarter stands 12% above than of the second quarter. Spot prices for Australian thermal coal remain 40% above prior-year levels.

Three ways to play
With Peabody shedding much-needed light on the unwavering strength of the Pan-Asian growth story, a Fool looking to establish or increase exposure to this trend has a number of options. Among them, I prefer these three types of vehicles:

  • I have offered my 5 Top Coal Picks for the Next 20 Years, and I stand behind those selections. Among them, Yanzhou Coal Mining (NYSE: YZC) and Alpha Natural Resources (NYSE: ANR) appear best-positioned for new investment after the recent sell-off in the sector.
  • Related infrastructure plays are scarce, but Brookfield Infrastructure Partners (NYSE: BIP) is a compelling option. Peabody noted that the Dalrymple Bay Coal Terminal in Queensland is exporting coal at record volumes, and Brookfield owns a 49% direct stake in this key export terminal.
  • Someone has to carry these materials to their destination, and Diana Shipping (NYSE: DSX) -- with its purpose-built Newcastlemax carriers under construction -- remains the queen of the dry bulk shippers.

Fools interested in investing in China are encouraged to test-drive the Motley Fool Global Gains newsletter service with a 30-day free trial. The Global Gains team keeps a close eye on China for opportunities arising from decoupling.

Brookfield Infrastructure Partners is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick, a Motley Fool Global Gains recommendation, and a Motley Fool Hidden Gems choice. The Fool owns shares of Brookfield Infrastructure Partners.

Fool contributor Christopher Barker can be found blogging actively and acting Foolishly in the CAPS community under the user name TMFSinchiruna. He tweets. He owns shares of BHP Billiton, Diana Shipping, and Peabody Energy. The Motley Fool's disclosure policy is brushing up on its Mandarin, just in case.