Peking and Moscow are edging toward warmer relations, but not at the expense of Sino-American ties or of China's assertively independent foreign policy. That foreign policy was underlined by China's denunciation of the United States invasion of Grenada as an example of ''hegemonism,'' a term of opprobrium China applies to both the US and the Soviet Union.
A steady stream of American visitors continues to be received by top Chinese leaders, however, and preparations are going forward for Premier Zhao Ziyang's visit to Washington in January and for President Reagan's visit here in the spring.
As regards the Soviet Union, China acts much like the fairy-tale princess who gave her ardent wooers three tasks. In China's case the tasks are these: remove Soviet troops from Afghanistan, stop supporting Vietnam in its occupation of Kampuchea, and reduce Soviet military strength along the lengthy Sino-Soviet and Sino-Mongolian borders. A more recent demand has been for the reduction of Soviet SS-20s aimed at China.
Deputy Foreign Minister Leonid Ilyichov returned to Moscow Oct. 29 after three weeks of ''consultations'' in Peking that both Soviet and Chinese officials characterized as ''calm,'' ''candid,'' and ''useful.''
These were the third round of ''consultations'' Ilyichov has had with his Chinese counterpart, Qian Qichen. (The Chinese studiously avoid the term ''negotiations'' when characterizing the talks.) The next round will be held in Moscow in March l984.
Ilyichov came to Peking with a bulging portfolio of proposals, informed diplomatic observers state. He refused to discuss either Afghanistan or Kampuchea on the grounds that such issues involved third countries. He adroitly separated the Sino-Soviet border issue from that of the Sino-Mongolian border and the positioning of SS-20s in the Far East, noting that neither of these had been on China's original list of ''obstacles'' to be cleared.
He suggested that the Sino-Soviet border itself, exclusive of Mongolia, was long enough and had problems enough to be discussed. Maintaining that the crux of the problem was the need to build trust and confidence on both sides, Ilychev outlined a whole set of possible steps, such as: a Peking-Moscow hot line, a nuclear-free border zone, an agreement not to use nuclear forces against each other, enlarging of the Sino-Soviet talks to include military as well as civilian representatives from both sides.
Other Soviet proposals included increasing Sino-Soviet trade from $800 million this year to something like $2.5 billion in l985. Ilyichov is also said to have stated Moscow's readiness to help modernize several Chinese plants originally built with Soviet economic aid.
Moscow would also like to move Sino-Soviet talks to the ministerial level: to revive aborted talks between Foreign Ministers Wu Xueqian and Andrei Gromyko as soon as possible and if possible to stage a meeting between Defense Ministers Zhang Aiping and Dmitri Ustinov to counter September's Zhang-Weinberger meeting. The Chinese are being cagey: They do not want high-level talks with Moscow to spoil the atmosphere for Premier Zhao's visit to Washington.
Furthermore, although they have not rejected Moscow's proposals outright, they know that they cannot be seen to be moving toward more normal relations with Moscow without some tangible progress being made toward meeting at least one of China's principal demands (or obstacles to be removed, as Peking puts it).
Peking's dilemma is that as talks with Moscow continue and trade and cultural relations improve, it becomes increasingly difficult to avoid the impression that normalization is being achieved de facto while China's own demands remain basically unmet.