An unspectacular but steady improvement in Sino-Soviet relations - this is one of the few positive legacies Konstantin Chernenko has inherited from the brief Yuri Andropov regime.
Vice-Premier Wan Li's presence at President Andropov's state funeral Tuesday shows both how far Sino-Soviet relations have come during the 15 months of the Andropov era and the distance that remains to be traveled on the path to full normalization.
Wan Li is the highest Chinese official to visit the Soviet capital since Moscow and Peking's bitter quarrel surfaced in the early 1960s.
As first vice-premier, Wan Li's position is similar to that of Vice-President George Bush, who represented the United States at the Andropov funeral. Wan Li substitutes for Premier Zhao Ziyang during the latter's absences from Peking. He is also a member of the Politburo, although he visited Moscow strictly in his governmental capacity. (China has no party-to-party relations with Moscow, and at present neither side intends to resume such relations.)
In contrast, the Chinese representative at President Brezhnev's funeral in November 1982 was Foreign Minister Huang Hua. Mr. Huang was then a state councilor but not a vice-premier, nor did he sit on the Politburo.
The process of Sino-Soviet normalization began in March 1982 when Brezhnev made a speech in Tashkent holding out an olive branch to Peking. In October that year, Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Leonid Ilyichov visited Peking for the first of what has become a twice-yearly series of ''consultations'' held alternately in Peking and Moscow. Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Qian Qichen, Ilyichov's counterpart in these talks, is with Wan Li in Moscow and will go there again for the fourth round of ''consultations'' next month.
Meanwhile another Soviet deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Kapitsa, is visiting Hanoi in what Western diplomats here believe may be an attempt to coordinate policy with Vietnam before the Ilyichov-Qian talks next month. China has put forward three conditions for normalization: Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, reduction of Soviet troops in Mongolia and along the Sino-Soviet border, and cessation of Soviet support for Vietnam's occupation of Kampuchea.
All three conditions relate directly to the security of China's frontiers, and two of the three also directly affect Soviet security. But East European sources hint that Moscow may be preparing a new proposal on Kampuchea, a region far from Soviet frontiers. If that is the case, Kapitsa may be sounding out Hanoi as to how much of a compromise it is prepared to tolerate.
Neither Peking nor Moscow voices much optimism for rapid progress in the Ilyichov-Qian talks. The general atmosphere of Sino-Soviet relations, however, continues to improve steadily. A trade agreement increasing Sino-Soviet commercial exchanges by 50 percent was signed recently. Overall trade last year was $800 million and is expected to increase to $1.2 billion this year.
Tension along the Sino-Soviet frontier has subsided noticeably. Limited cultural, sports, and tourist exchanges have been revived. Chinese newspapers report economic and other changes in the Soviet Union in a nonpolemical manner.
These are all positive improvements in Sino-Soviet relations achieved during Andropov's 15-month tenure. They are not likely to be diluted or reversed by his successor.
While these changes were taking place, Peking also moved away from what seemed to be a budding strategic relationship with Washington toward a more traditional stance of independence from both superpowers.
And yet, in the eyes of China's leaders, there continues to be a most important difference between the Soviet Union and the United States. With all the modest improvements that have taken place in Sino-Soviet relations, Moscow's overwhelming military might remains the chief and, indeed, only serious threat to China's security. The United States is a superpower, but neither in China's eyes nor in those of Washington does it constitute a security threat to China. That is why Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang could reportedly tell visiting Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke that China continues to have a strategic relationship with the United States.