If Ronald Reagan is looking for a foreign policy feather in his cap sometime over the next year--and what right-thinking president running for reelection wouldn't be-- where in the world would he look?

Surely not in Central America, where only miracles could be counted on to give him the sort of success he craves. In the Middle East, he will be lucky if by November 1984, the situation has not turned from bad to worse. And even without the damage done to U.S.- Soviet relations by the Korean airline "massacre," the prospects were bleak for the sort of arms control breakthroughs that would clear the way for a dramatic summit meeting with Yuri Andropov.

But hold on, give the globe another half turn, and consider the spectacle of Reagan on location in Peking in 1984. See him at the Great Wall. Watch him engage in high- stakes, high-visibility, power-balancing geopolitics. It wouldn't be quite the same as Richard Nixon's blend of history-making and histrionics, of course. Progress in U.S.- China relations is hard to measure these days, and still more difficult to dramatize.

But serious China watchers are beginning to believe that after three years of more downs than ups in the U.S. relationship with China, there is the beginning of an upswing that could create a climate worthy of summit-level reinforcement--assuming the right balances can be struck. Hence, the considerable importance attached to the way Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger handles his visit next week to Peking. It will tell a great deal about the Reagan administration's reading of current Chinese policy toward the superpowers--a policy nicely encapsulated in the Chinese reaction to the Soviet downing of Korean Airlines Flight 007.

The Chinese pointedly abstained from voting on the U.N. Security Council's resolution deploring the attack--while conceding it was a "serious violation of the established norms." So much for toeing the U.S. line. But Peking's foreign ministry has called on the Soviets for compensation to the victims' families. So much for toeing the Soviet line.

"An independent foreign policy" aligned to neither superpower is Peking's game. The question raised by the Reagan administration's performance more than once since it came to office is whether the United States should be big about this.

China scholar Doak Barnett is one of many who believe "realism demands the U.S. leaders understand and accept the shift that has occurred in China's foreign policy."

"Even if Sino-Soviet relations improve," he argues, "strong bilateral U.S.-China ties, mainly political and economic rather than military, are important to both countries." So the "prime requisite" for the success of Weinberger's visit, he insists, is that the goals be "modest."

This means no excessive generosity in offers of arms sales or security arrangements aimed at making common cause against the Soviets; no lectures about the Soviet menace; and no coaching the Chinese on how to handle it. "The principal significance of the Weinberger trip is that it is finally taking place," Barnett maintains. You can see what he means when you look back on the roller- coaster ride in U.S.-China relations since the big Nixon breakthrough and the "normalization" of relations in the Carter years.

That was the upswing. The downswing came with the prospect and then the reality of Reagan's presidency: the hint of a resurrected two-China policy; the chill induced by the suggestion of open-ended arms aid to Taiwan; Peking's insistence on a termination date.

That question was finally resolved a year ago. When Secretary of State George Shultz went to China this year, there was at least the promise of an upswing--quickly dashed when the Reagan administration went ahead with an arms deal with Taiwan. Relations soured over trade issues and the defection of a Chinese tennis player.

But an underlying sense of common interest prevailed. Misunderstandings gave way to new U.S. commitments on trade and technological transfer. It should be Weinberger's principal purpose to accentuate these positive American and Chinese impulses.

The right touch could smooth the path to summitry. Way-stations are already marked out. China's foreign minister will be here for the United Nations General Assembly next month--and a chat with Shultz. If that goes well (again, no big deals), then Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang might well pick up the invitation given him by Shultz last spring to come to Washington.

What, then, could be more logical than for Reagan to return the visit in election-year 1984? It wouldn't match the impact of a genuine easing of East-West tension, accompanied by tangible accords or treaties with the Soviets, and capped by a Reagan-Andropov summit.

But it would be something upbeat-- something worth doing in its own right. It would also be at least moderately appealing politically at a time when Ronald Reagan, as he surveys the world for foreign policy successes, cannot exactly afford to be picky.