Recent events suggest China will be on the minds of President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev when they meet in Reykjavik, Iceland, this weekend. Through his East European allies, the Soviet leader appears to be signaling his desire to terminate nearly 25 years of confrontation in Sino-Soviet relations. East-bloc leaders are restoring their former relationships with China and thereby helping to build a bridge by which the Soviet Union might normalize its own.
East European sources say Mr. Gorbachev is as serious and concerned about establishing a new relationship with China as he is to reach arms reduction agreements with the United States. Any improvement in relations between China and the Soviet Union would be of concern to the US.
The three-day China visit last month by the head of Poland's Communist Party, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, was the first by an East-bloc party chief (other than that of maverick Romania's) since Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's in 1959. In the communist world, the warmth of relations between ruling communist parties carries more weight than actual state-to-state relations.
In a striking renewal of inter-party contacts, broken off 24 years ago, General Jaruzelski had talks with Chinese party chief Hu Yaobang and China's top leader, Deng Xiaoping.
Other East European leaders are set to make similar visits, starting this month with East Germany's Erich Honecker and continuing with a visit by Hungary's Janos Kadar, possibly before the end of the year. Czechoslovak and Bulgarian leaders are expected to follow suit.
China is most interested in East Germany (because of past experience with traditional German skills and efficiency) and Hungary (because of its long-established economic reform, which the Chinese freely acknowledge as a major influence in their own reform process).
These visits take on special significance not only because they embrace party affairs, but because the East Europeans undoubtedly are traveling with Gorbachev's blessing.
His own idea of normalizing relations with Peking was evident soon after he took power some two years ago. Long-stalled talks on a range of disputes picked up momentum, though they have produced no results.
Gorbachev's July 28 speech in Vladivostok, in which he indicated his desire to improve relations with China and other nations in the Pacific region has generated little enthusiasm in Peking. Spokesmen blandly repeated Peking's well-known obstacles to normal relations -- Soviet support of Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia, the heavy concentration of Soviet troops along China's northern border, and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Nevertheless, Sino-Soviet talks continue.
``We are ready to discuss anything the Chinese want,'' said Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Rogachov on his return to Peking this week, for the second time in a month, to resume the protracted normalization talks between Moscow and Peking.
The East Europeans see this development as a follow-up to their own ``path finding'' in improving relations with China.
The China-Eastern Europe process began in 1983, when Chinese party leader Hu visited Bucharest, Romania, Belgrade, and Yugoslavia, and senior Chinese Foreign Ministry officials went to Budapest, East Berlin, Warsaw, Prague, and Sofia, Bulgaria.
Frequent exchanges of visits followed. Last year, Chinese Foreign Minister Wu Xueqian traveled to East Berlin and Budapest. Since he is a member of the Communist Party Poliburo, these visits took on significance beyond mere inter-state relations.
East European sources no longer regard inter-party disputes as an obstacle to better relations, nor do they believe that the Chinese are interested in restoring economic and trade ties to the exclusion of party ties.
Basically, as an authoritative East-bloc source recalled this week, the quarrel between the Soviets and the Chinese stemmed from China's 1961 rejection of any kind of subordination to Moscow and the Soviet party.
``That now is a dead issue,'' the source said. ``Gorbachev is certainly not interested in the old monolith ideas of hegemony or a dominant role for any one party in the international [communist] movement.''
Although the Soviet leader appears to have put arms reductions at the top of his Reykjavik agenda, East-bloc sources believe that he has implied -- after the fashion of his emissary in Peking -- a readiness to discuss anything Mr. Reagan wishes. That could mean trouble spots such as Afghanistan, as well as wider conflict areas of interest to the Chinese.
East Europeans appear assured that the Reykjavik meeting will lead to a second Gorbachev-Reagan summit. They also believe that a new relationship is on track between Moscow and Peking.