US officials say Chinese President Li Xiannian's week-long visit to the United States, which began Sunday, will be largely symbolic. But where US-Chinese relations are concerned, they add, symbols are unusually important.
Officials say they hope the trip can reinforce an overall warming trend in relations between the two nations.
President Li is expected to use the occasion to raise two nettlesome issues:
The status of Taiwan, which Li calls the ``largest obstacle in US-China relations.''
US criticism of Chinese population-control policies.
In meetings with US officials, Li is expected to urge the administration to discontinue arms sales to Taipei and to encourage Taiwan to accept reunification with China. Peking has proposed a ``one-country, two-systems'' formula that -- for the time being at least -- would preserve Taiwan's political and economic system.
This formula was applied in a recent agreement between China and Great Britain on the future status of Hong Kong.
``There's an unspoken threat here that if the US resists, Peking may eventually seek to settle the Taiwan issue by force,'' says China expert Martin Lasater of the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based research institution.
Despite the increased pressure, administration officials says there is no room to negotiate on the Taiwan issue.
``Our positions on Taiwan have been laid out numerous times,'' says a State Department official. ``It's hard to see what else new can be said.''
Instead, President Reagan is expected to reaffirm the US commitment to defend Taiwan and to maintain commercial and other relations with Taipei. Taiwan is currently the United States' fifth-largest trading partner.
Also high on China's list of bilateral problems is recent congressional action that cuts off US funding for the United Nations Fund for Population Activities and other agencies, which could terminate China's family-planning program.
Backers of the House amendment charge that China has resorted to forced abortions and infanticide to meet stringent birth-control quotas. Another amendment condemns the Chinese practices as ``crimes against humanity.''
Chinese officials have reacted angrily, denouncing congressional criticism as a ``fabrication and distortion'' and an unacceptable ``interference in China's internal affairs.'' In his meeting with Mr. Reagan, Li will protest the US position on China's family-planning efforts.
Although the administration is publicly opposed to the use of abortion as a means of family planning, Reagan is likely to remind his Chinese visitor that the act was a congressional initiative.
The President is expected to urge that China take further steps to allay US concerns regarding the use of abortions in family planning.
The other major issue to be discussed is a proposed agreement to permit the sale of US nuclear-power equipment and technology to China.
Reagan initialed a nuclear agreement during a state visit to China in 1984, but the pact has been held up because of allegations of Chinese support for a nuclear weapons-building program in Pakistan.
US officials say fears regarding China's nuclear nonprofileration policy were satisfactorily addressed in a meeting between US and Chinese officials in June, and that the way has now been cleared for a formal signing -- possibly while Li is in Washington this week.
On Saturday, the US State Department and Energy Department formally asked President Reagan to approve the agreement.
In addition to these major issues, Li and his American hosts will take up several smaller items this week, including a treaty on fishing rights. US officials are also expected to ask Li about Peking's current warming relations with the Soviet Union and their implications on future US-China ties.
Although holding a largely ceremonial post in China, Li holds a senior position on China's politburo, the Communist Party's ruling body. Li is one of a rapidly dwindling number of high-level Chinese officials who are veterans of the famous ``Long March'' in the mid-1930s, which marked the beginning of communist ascendancy in China.
President Li's visit to the US follows a week in Canada. On Thursday, Li travels to Chicago to open a Chinese consular office. He concludes his trip with visits to Los Angeles and Honolulu.