The long-awaited visit to China by Soviet First Deputy Premier Ivan V. Arkhipov may prove to be more important in the anticipation than in the actual event.
Mr. Arkhipov is due to arrive in Peking Dec. 21 for about a week's worth of discussions with Chinese leaders. He will be the highest-level Soviet official to visit China in 15 years.
The Chinese see the visit as evidence of Soviet willingness to thaw out the long-chilled relations between the two socialist powers. Whatever may be accomplished in the way of agreements on economic cooperation, which Chinese officials say will be the main topic for discussion, is likely to be limited.
Ma Yuzhen, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at a press conference last week that since Arkhipov is one of the top Soviet leaders, ''The subjects for discussions will not be confined to economic matters.''
However, Western diplomats say that dialogue on the stubborn political and security issues that divide the two nations is likely to be pro forma.
The Arkhipov discussions are scheduled to begin only two days after British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's quick visit to Peking to sign the agreement on the transfer of Hong Kong to Chinese control after 1997. Mrs. Thatcher, who arrived in Peking Tuesday night, is expected to brief the Chinese leaders on her own recent discussions with Mikhail Gorbachev, the No. 2 man in the Kremlin.
(China's official news agency Xinhua said a ''warm, friendly, and ceremonious'' reception was planned for Thatcher, a contrast to the tensions of her September 1982 visit, which inaugurated two years of tough negotiations on Hong Kong's future after the expiration of the British lease on the colony, AP reports.)
But diplomats here see little connection between China's attempts to improve its bilateral ties with the Soviet Union and the current movement toward a new East-West dialogue.
The Arkhipov visit is a result of more than two years of talks between Moscow and it has an agenda with a logic of its own, these diplomats say.
As the senior Soviet leader in charge of economic affairs, Arkhipov is expected to offer the Chinese assistance in modernizing some heavy industries, other develoment aid, and expanded scientific and technological exchanges. All of these have been virtually suspended for almost two decades. Chinese say they would welcome such assistance as long as there are no strings attached, as there had been during the heyday of Soviet aid programs in the 1950s.
The difficulties both sides face in normalizing their relations were indicated in the abrupt postponement of Arkhipov's visit last May and the seven-month long delay in rescheduling it.
Little progress has been made at other high-level meetings since then, including lengthy discussions between the Chinese and Soviet foreign ministers in New York in September and two weeks of talks at the vice-foreign-minister level in Peking in October.
''It is very hard to imagine that relations between our two countries can be normalized in the near future, '' said a senior Chinese official several weeks ago.
China and the Soviet Union began talks toward restoring more normal relations in October 1982. At the semiannual sessions which alternate between Moscow and Peking, the Chinese have made it clear that three obstacles stand in the way of better relations: the Soviet military buildup to China's north, including three divisions of troops in Mongolia; the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan; and Soviet support for Vietnam's annexation of Kampuchea (Cambodia).
The Soviets have shown no willingness to yield on these strategic issues.
For their part, the Soviets see increased Chinese military cooperation with the United States as threatening their security in East Asia. (The announcement of Arkhipov's visit came on the same day as the announcement of a visit to China next year by the United States' top military officer, Gen. John W. Vessey.) The Soviets also see the strengthening of China's political and economic ties to Eastern Europe as an attempt to weaken their own influence there.
Arkhipov will also be wary of appearing conciliatory during this trip to Peking since the Soviet Union's ally, Vietnam, recently has been reporting increased Chinese hostility on its northern border.
Despite all these restraints on the progress in Sino-Soviet relations, trade between the two countries has been steadily increasing. A 1985 trade agreement was signed recently in Moscow, setting a target for two-way trade next year of $ 1.6 billion, a 36 percent increase over 1984.
Also, recent articles in the Chinese press have highlighted the more relaxed atmosphere at border crossings, hinting at a return to the more friendly exchanges across the border typical of the days when the two nations were close allies.