The United States needs China like never before and seems willing to soften its tone on issues of long-standing contention in return for co-operation. The new atmosphere is an opportunity for both to build a partnership that will be mutually beneficial while bringing regional security and prosperity. Three high-level visits by US delegations in a matter of days are proof of the new importance Washington places on its relationship with Beijing. US human rights envoy Lorne Craner yesterday held a second round of talks with officials - the first such meeting since October last year. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was in Beijing last week to discuss issues ranging from Iraq to North Korea. As he left, the new commander of the US Pacific Fleet, Admiral Thomas Fargo, arrived for talks on security. In a phone call on Friday, President George W. Bush sought China's help in calming concerns over North Korea's nuclear weapons programme. Never has there been such a level of interaction on issues that in the past would have been avoided - human rights, security and Tibet, among others. That Beijing and Washington are sharing views on such issues is significant. Relations hit a low in April 2001 after a US spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet collided over the South China Sea; a Chinese pilot was lost and the spy plane forced to land in Hainan. There was no thaw until last year's attacks on New York and Washington, when China pledged to help fight terrorism. The new approach makes perfect sense, given the mainland's elevation a year ago to membership of the World Trade Organisation and its surging economic performance. China realises it must play a different role; it has shown willingness to do that by forging a new economic partnership with Southeast Asian nations, appointing its first envoy to the Middle East and playing a key role, through its permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council, in mediating over weapons inspections in Iraq. China and the US must increase efforts to broach issues of contention. Better understanding will lessen bilateral tensions while easing regional security concerns.