A magnet to American traders since the days when Yankee Clippers plied the world's seas, China once again is exerting its pull on American business executives.

Shut out of one of the world's largest markets for more than a quarter of a century until Richard M. Nixon resumed ties with Peking a decade ago, the United States now stands as number three trading partner of the People's Republic of China--behind Hong Kong and Japan.

And the National Council for U.S.-China Trade predicts that U.S. trade with China, which had a flat start in 1972 and has been largely static over the past year, will resume its upward movement in 1983.

Trade council President Christopher H. Phillips anticipates that U.S.-China trade will grow by about 14 to 15 percent a year, with 1983 American sales increasing by about $500 million, to $3.5 billion. He said most of the increases will be in manufactured goods because agricultural exports have reached a plateau. Total trade should amount to $6.3 billion in 1983, the council predicts.

"We feel quite upbeat about the prospects for U.S.-China economic relations," said Phillips, a former diplomat and banker.

China, with a foreign exchange surplus of close to $6 billion to finance its purchases, is interested in buying goods that America is competitive in, such as equipment for oil drilling, coal mining, telecommunications and electronics, added Executive Vice President Roger W. Sullivan.

These priorities were set during the long debate over China's five-year plan, which traditionally leads to a major spurt in development and spending, as the final document represents the end of internal argument over the direction the country should take for the next few years.

U.S. Department of Commerce estimates, while more conservative than the private trade organization, also see favorable prospects for trade with China. A November forecast prepared by the commercial attache in the U.S. Embassy in Peking is for a "slow growth" in China's purchases of machinery and equipment from the West, and it says that agricultural sales from the United States--which now amount to one-half of total U.S. exports--will continue strong.

America's trade with China stood at a measly $4.9 million--all imports--in 1971, before the Nixon visit. The next year it leapt ahead to $95.9 million, and in 1973 it catapulted once more, to $805.1 million. After Nixon resigned as president in 1974, however, trade was slashed in half as relations between the United States and China appeared to cool.

It took President Carter's 1977 normalization moves to bring about the "great leap foward" in American trade with China's close to one billion people. Total trade tripled between 1977 and 1978, then doubled each year for the next two until it reached $4.8 billion in 1980. It climbed to $5.5 billion in 1981 and is expected to end at about the same level in 1982.

U.S. imports from China increased by about 25 percent, to approximately $2.3 billion, while exports declined 15 percent to about $3 billion, narrowing the Peking government's trade deficit with the United States to about $700 million or $800 million.

A decline of Chinese imports of textile fibers from the United States, which totaled about $500 million in 1981, was responsible for a large part of the drop in America's trade surplus as the Chinese suspended purchases of polyester cloth, which was being stockpiled in China. U.S. cotton sales also dropped as the Chinese farmers pulled in bumper harvests.

The fastest growing American import was Chinese apparel, which increased by more than 50 percent to about $600 million.

Since 1979, America's exports to China have been greater than its imports--a sore point with the Peking government, which especially objects to U.S. limits on purchases of textiles from it. Phillips said growth of textile exports from China will be limited in 1983 by either agreement or U.S. government quotas. A textile agreement expired in December, but negotiations are likely to continue into the new year.

Chinese exports of textiles to the United States are likely to be replaced in 1983 by increased shipments of chemicals, pharmaceuticals--such as bulk antihistamine and vitamin C--foods, petroleum products, minerals and metals as the Peking government tries to whittle down America's trade surplus.

By a fluke, China's largest export to the United States is gasoline, a byproduct of its system of petroleum refining, which puts a premium on producing heavy oil, Sullivan said. With few cars, China finds little use for the gasoline residue.

Phillips said that "this past year has seen increases in both the quality and diversity of Chinese goods imported into this country, as well as in improved quality and suitability for the American market."

U.S. firms, meanwhile, are beginning to tap into China's search for more energy. Atlantic Richfield, for example, is expected to begin drilling for oil off Hainan Island in South China later in the month, and an Occidental Oil subsidiary, Island Creek Oil Co., is working on a feasibility study for a $500 million joint venture to develop an open-pit coal mine.

American aircraft sales also will add about $250 million to $300 million to U.S. exports; the Chinese have contracted to buy 10 Boeing 737s and are looking for more planes.

According to Sullivan, one holdback to further increases in U.S.-China trade are Reagan administration barriers to the sale of computers and programs that supposedly have military application. "You couldn't even sell China a personal IBM computer," said Sullivan.

Nonetheless, China is moving heavily into purchases of high technology, largely from Japan.