China's leaders, their positions firmly established by the recent party congress, are putting on a dazzling display of foreign policy juggling.
Within the space of one week, China's top leaders have entertained North Korea's ''wise and beloved'' leader, Kim Il Sung; Britain's ''Iron Lady,'' Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; and Japan's soft-speaking Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki. Richard Nixon of the United States also recently visited and Henry Kissinger is expected in Peking Sept. 28.
Is there a common thread linking these various visits and suggestions? Is China about to play a Soviet card, despite all its protestations to the contrary? Why the extraordinary attention lavished on Marshal Kim - attention far outstripping that given to Western visitors?
With regard to Sino-Soviet relations, the atmosphere has changed, but not the fundamentals. As Premier Zhao told Mr. Suzuki Sept. 27, China's opposition to Soviet ''hegemonism'' remains unchanged. China is looking for deeds, not words, from the Soviet Union. Mr. Zhao said improvement of relations with Moscow was ''like a marathon race - a long time will be needed.''
Still, there is no question that the atmosphere has changed. China no longer openly endorses the views of visiting Western leaders who decry Soviet expansionism. And in a notably mild passage in his report to the 12th party congress early this month General Secretary Hu Yaobang said:
''If the Soviet authorities really have a sincere desire to improve relations with China and take practical steps to lift their threat to the security of our country, it will be possible for Sino-Soviet relations to move toward normalization.''
Sino-Soviet border talks will reportedly resume next month, after having been suspended since 1979. But as a Chinese official noted, they don't point to a Sino-Soviet thaw.
Their resumption does not by itself indicate a softening Chinese attitude. The Chinese say they continue to look for actions by the Soviets in two fields: internationally, the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan and of Soviet support for Vietnam's occupation of Kampuchea; and bilaterally, a thinning out of Soviet forces in Mongolia and along the Sino-Soviet border.
Relations with the US and Japan are not likely to be as warm as during an earlier period. But in the case of the US this does not mean the Chinese strategic view of the world, which induced the original opening to Washington, has changed. Soviet hegemonism is still the main threat perceived by Peking. Although the Chinese also decry what they call the superpower arrogance of the US, it is clear from the context of these remarks that they are not adopting a policy of equidistance toward Washington and Moscow.
As for Japan, Mr. Suzuki during his current visit has been attempting to undo the damage done to relations by the textbook controversy. This was caused by the Japanese Education Ministry's decision to rewrite textbooks describing Japan's invasion of China in the 1930s as an ''advance'' and not an ''aggression.''
The Chinese have responded warmly to Mr. Suzuki's approach, although as Mr. Zhao said in his welcome speech, both sides need to exercise care lest ''a single ant hole destroy a thousand-li (300 miles) dike.''
China's textbook dispute with Japan will not end until the textbooks are changed, just as dark clouds over Peking's relations with Washington cannot be eliminated as long as the US sells arms to Taiwan. (Suzuki reportedly told Zhao Sept. 26 that Japan would correct the textbook errors.)
China's relations with these two Western countries are on a manageable level. Chairman Deng Xiaoping's promise to Mrs. Thatcher to open talks on the future of Hong Kong while sidestepping the touchy sovereignty issue is another indication of Peking's present pragmatic mood.
Pragmatism of a different sort underlies China's approach to North Korea. As distasteful as most Chinese find the personality cult of Kim Il Sung (they remember when they themselves fanatically waved Chairman Mao's ''Little Red Book''), China cannot afford to antagonize North Korea for fear of driving it into the Soviet camp. Marshal Kim has played a clever balancing act with Peking and Moscow. One purpose of his latest trip to China (his first in seven years) is said to be to secure a major Chinese commitment to his country's economic development plans.