Knowledgeable China watchers in church and mission circles in this country are applauding the establishment of full diplomatic relations with China.

But few see any prosepects of a religious rapprochement with the current rulers of China -- at least not along the patterns of past missionary endeavors.

"I believe the mutual action of President Carter and the Chinese government in normalizing their relationship provides a more lasting basis for peace in Asia than has been possible for the last 30 years," said the Rev. Dr. Tracey K. Jones, of New York, who heads the United Methodist Church's Board of Global Ministries and the world mission division of the National Council of Churches.

Jones, who was a missionary in China in the days before the Communists came to power, has just returned from a visit there. He was, in fact, on a plane to Tokyo on his way home, when he heard the nesws of approaching formal U.S.-China ties.

"I'm very happy about the diplomatic recognition. It was long overdue," said another old China hand, a Vincentiap priest, the Rev. Frederick A. Maguire who also visited China 18 months ago.

But the priest, now retired here, made it clear that this satisfaction with the new diplomatic relationship was based more on political considerations than on religious opportunism.

"I don't believe that there will be any time in many years that there will be an opening for foreigners to go in as missionaries," he said.

At the same time, he added, "there will be opportunities in the technological development of China for the dedicated Catholic layman" who may now be studying or working outside China, "to quietly manifest his faith, but not to go around preaching."

Christian missionary activity in China goes back well over a century. It fired the imagination of novelists and film makers, perhaps nowhere more dramatically than in the portrait of Chinese life drawn by Peral Buck -- the child of China missionaries -- in her novel, "The Good Earth."

When the Communits took over the country in 1949, they expelled more than 5,000 foreign missionaries, forced the closing of nearly 4,000 church-run schools and colleges and several hundred hospitals and dispensaries.

At the time that formal religious activity was halted by the revolutionary government, it was estimated that there were about 4 million Chinese Christians, both Protestant and Catholic.

In spite of churches and medical and educational institutions established by the missionaries, the China missionary effort was something less than Christianity's finest hour.

In that pre-ecumenical era, different denominations openly competed with one another for converts, transplanting to Chinese soil the centuries-old European and American schisms and quarrels.

Some missionaries used food to bribe desperately poor and hungry peasants to embrace the new faith, and the term "rice Christian" entered both the Chinese and English lauguages.

Many of the missionaries left their high walled compunds only for their appointed chores, disdaining contact with the people whom they deemed inferior.

But perhaps most damaging in the long run was the alliance between foreign missionary and imperialist foreign government.

"From 1840 to 1940 was the century of humiliation for China," explained the Rev. Edwin Fisher of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. "The western churches were admitted into China at gunpoint," as part of the gunboat diplomacy through which Western nations secured trade and other advantages in China.

From the perspective of the Chinese. Fisher continued, to become a Christian "was viewed almost as an unpatriotic act."

In the light of that history and the subsequent struggle of the Chinese to achieve self-reliance, "to come out now and acknowledge you are a Christian is almost a treasonous act," Fisher explained.

Fisher, also a former emissionary in China, said that despite this background, "there is a (Christian) church in China. It has never gone out of existence, though it is not the kind of church that you and I would recognize."

He based this assertion on conversations he held last spring with K. H. Ting, who, Fisher said, "was formerly the Anglican bishop of Nanking, though he doesn't call himself bishop anymore. He says 'There is no hiregarchy. We are all Christians together.'"

Fisher said Ting told him there are 700,000 identifiable Protestant Christians in China.

Fisher indicated that accordint to Ting, who once headed the Nanking Theological Seminary, Chinese Christment decree than by their own need to determine what shape Chinese Christianity must take.

"As Christians, they have to come to terms with a new kind of government," Fisher explained, Traditionally Christians have fed the hungry, cared for their neighbors, and enjoined people to live upright lives.

"'We have a government that does that,'" Fisher quoted Ting as saying. "'We have to think through what it means to be Chinese Christians, and what that means in this society. The Christian church in China has to be a Chinese church,'"

Until Chinese Christians come to terms with that question, Fisher said, Western Christians cannot even think about sending missionaries.

"That (Chinese) church itself must determine what self-reliance means," he said. "They must be the ones to determine what will be their relation to outside churches. Our attitude, as America Christians, must be: 'You (Chinese Christians) are our friends. We remember you; you are much on our minds and hearts. If you would like to have a relationship with us, we stand ready.'"

Baker J. Cauthen, executive director of the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board, and also a former China missionary, is aware of the sensitivity of the situation, but he still wants American Christians to do more than wait.

"We need to pray that God may use these recent events to help bring about the reopening of churches in China and permission for resumption of mission work with China's 800 million people," he said.

China was the focus of the Southern Baptist's foreign mission work in 1846. At one time, in 1937, half of the denominationhs missionary force was deployed there.

Meanwhile, Cauthen pledged that Southern Baptists would continue their work on Taiwan, where the head of the board's 107-missionary force reported "absolutely no unpleasant experiences" as a result of the changed diplomatic situation.

Maguire, the Vincentian priest, saw some signs of easing of the climate for religion in China in a report he received last week from a priest friend just returned from a visit there. "He wrote me that as he talked to the Chinese people there were many questions about religion -- they were asking all sorts of question."

The priest also said mass publicly in the lounge of his hotel, according to Maguire. "When I was there (18 months ago) I couldn't do that. I had to say mass is my room."

He added that the friend wrote that several people attended, or at least observed, the mass. One of the most attentive, according to the priest, was the woman who served as chief guide for the party he was with.

"She said it was the first time she has ever seen any religious service," the priest said."