enior Chinese officials told Secretary of State George P. Shultz that they have little expectation of policy shifts by the Soviet Union on the major questions that divide the giants of world communism.

Nevertheless, according to U.S. sources, the Chinese went on to make clear that they plan to proceed with increasing trade and a growing number of exchanges with the Soviets even without a broad agreement on outstanding issues.

The immediate Chinese aim seems to be the reduction of tensions with their northern neighbor, which would help keep Chinese attention and energies focused on the economic development process that is the country's top priority. Among other things, an easing of tension would be useful in keeping China's military buildup a relatively low priority as it is now.

Within two or three years, some Chinese say, their relationship to the Soviets may be similar to that of Washington and Moscow in the era of detente: reduced tensions, plenty of communications but no agreement and everybody's guard still up.

From all indications, Shultz was satisfied with the explanations offered him in the four-day China visit that ended this morning. The secretary of state told reporters, "I felt their Chinese view of the Russians is very realistic." He expressed no objection to Peking's decision to break the ice with Moscow through discussions and modest exchanges.

The greater questions are whether the Chinese at the same time are being or can be "realistic" in their relationship with the United States, and thus whether Sino-American relations can be stable, secure and improving as Shultz hoped.

The future of Sino-American ties was the central question still unanswered as Shultz left Peking this morning for Seoul and Hong Kong, the last stops of his 12-day Asian journey.

The answer must start with the Chinese self-image arising from history, culture and psychology: that of China not as an ordinary nation but as the Middle Kingdom, the center of the earth, with a world view befitting this position.

With the United States, China insists not just on economic, political and military relations but on a relationship that is established and understood. And for the first decade after then president Nixon's opening to China in 1971, China was treated as a special case, especially in the political area.

In the Reagan administration, that special relationship has been eroded, first because of differences about Taiwan and more recently because of China's decision to distance itself from the United States, court the Third World and begin high-level talks with the Soviets. The official commentary issued after Shultz left Peking indicates that problems over Taiwan, always a danger to the relationship, are far from solved.

In a recent interview in the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, a senior Chinese figure, Huan Xiang, declared there are four kinds of relationships between states: that of enemies, that of friends or allies, that of nations that are neither enemies or friends, and that of potential enemies that outwardly maintain friendly relations.

"I do not know myself which of these four kinds of relationships the United States believes it is maintaining with China," said Huan. He said that during Shultz's visit China would seek clarification, to see "what drug he is carrying in his gourd," to quote a Chinese proverb.

Shultz was confronted time after time with this Chinese quest for a U.S. definition of the relationship, according to participants in the discussions.

In dealing with the U.S. export of high technology for example, Chinese questions went well beyond the issues of particular cases to the broader question of the category or pattern involved. Peking's officials argued to Shultz that how China is treated, whether as a friendly country, a potential enemy or something between, is even more important than a particular export.

Washington is grappling with this question, and is likely to consider it anew in a forthcoming policy review of high technology sales to China, but Washington, unlike Peking, is more comfortable dealing with specific cases than overall principles.

Shultz's approach in China was to avoid new commitments or broad assurances but to concentrate instead on listening and explaining, case by case and point by point, in an effort to dispel misunderstanding and create the basis for mutual trust. This is a limited and even reduced approach compared to the more expansive posture of such visitors as Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Alexander M. Haig Jr.

The Chinese were impressed with Shultz's patience and earnestness, as Foreign Minister Wu Xueqian stated in his toast at the final banquet last night, but it remains to be seen how or whether they can accommodate to this steady, point by point, businesslike way of addressing the questions at hand. Given the limited U.S. ability to outline grand purposes and fulfill great expectations under present circumstances, the Shultz way of dealing with China probably reflects realism on the U.S. side. But it is less certain whether the Chinese are ready to accept a view that is realistic, limited and yet positive regarding U.S. positions and performance.