The highest ranking Soviet official to visit Peking in 15 years opened talks today with Chinese leaders aimed at increasing economic cooperation and easing tension between the two Communist giants.

First Deputy Premier Ivan Arkhipov said his visit would enlarge exchange and contact between the two countries in the economic, trade, scientific and technical fields and said it was of "great significance to the development of Soviet-Chinese relations," the official New China News Agency quoted the 77-year-old official as saying.

The long-planned visit by Arkhipov, who handles economic affairs for the Kremlin, is expected to restore the momentum in Sino-Soviet relations that was halted when the Soviet Union abruptly canceled his visit in May the day before he was supposed to arrive.

Relations between Moscow and Peking have been strained since the two nations began their ideological and strategic quarrel in the late 1950s.

Because of Arkhipov's high position in the Kremlin, both sides are expected to discuss the thorny political issues. Moreover, his nine-day visit opens a higher channel for communication that some Asian and European diplomats say will add impetus to an overall normalization process.

"It's an economic visit with political significance," said one diplomat. "It normalizes contact at a high level."

Arkhipov, who headed the massive Soviet aid program here in the 1950s, met for about 75 minutes this afternoon with his Chinese counterpart, Vice Premier Yao Yilin in the Great Hall of the People, according to the news agency.

Yao "extended a warm welcome to Arkhipov and his party and said he hoped that the task would produce positive results," the news agency reported.

Arkhipov is the most senior envoy to visit China since 1969, when then-premier Alexei Kosygin met briefly at the airport in Peking with his counterpart, Chou En-lai.

When Moscow canceled Arkhipov's trip earlier this year, it said it was "not prepared" for the visit, which was to have taken place shortly after President Reagan's visit to Peking. But diplomats have said that Moscow may have decided to cancel the trip because of heightened tensions along the Sino-Vietnamese border at the time, judging it would be too embarrassing to have an important envoy in Peking then.

Although there have been similar incidents along the Sino-Vietnamese border recently, diplomats here say it is likely that the Soviets applied more pressure to their ally in Hanoi this time.

Arkhipov, who helped China map out its first five-year plan, is expected to meet with Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang and "old friends" before he leaves Peking early next week, probably Monday, to tour southern cities. The Soviet official is expected to leave for Moscow Dec. 29, sources said.

He arrived here this morning aboard a special Aeroflot plane. Smiling broadly as he descended the ramp, he was met by Vice Premier Yao, Vice Foreign Minister Qian Qichen, Soviet Ambassador I.S. Shcherbakov and other members of the Peking diplomatic community.

In a brief statement at the airport, Arkhipov said: "In the Soviet Union our visit is viewed in the light of the positive trends that have become apparent recently in Soviet-Chinese relations. . . . We are convinced that there exists a large potential for the further expansion of mutually beneficial, businesslike cooperation between the two countries in various fields."

Specifically, the two sides are likely to reestablish a joint economic commission to boost trade, similar to the one China has established with many Eastern European countries in recent years, diplomats said. The two sides also are expected to sign a protocol increasing scientific and technological cooperation.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Qian, who heads the Chinese team in the political talks, said in an interview in China's World Affairs magazine this week that the Soviet Union needs many of China's light industrial goods and farm products. In return, he said, China needs many of the Soviet Union's products, such as timber and large machinery and equipment.

The Soviets are likely to upgrade and provide machinery for factories and projects that they helped build in China in the 1950s.

Currently, the two countries negotiate bilateral trade on a barter basis once a year. Sino-Soviet trade nearly tripled in 1983 and is anticipated to rise another 60 percent this year, to about $1.6 billion, according to the New China News Agency. Exchange of goods is expected to increase another 35 percent next year.

For the Chinese, the visit is a continuation of a pragmatic decision to segregate economic and scientific issues from the political, diplomats said. China publicly maintains that it will not play the U.S. or Soviet card in its diplomacy with the superpowers. But the overall momentum in Sino-U.S. relations and Sino-Japanese relations is growing, "and China does not want to be in a position where there was no movement in Sino-Soviet relations because China would feel disadvantaged in maintaining its own independent foreign policy," one diplomat said.

China's pragmatic leadership under Deng Xiaoping is aware that a Soviet perception of too close of an alliance with Washington or Tokyo could lead to an increased Soviet military buildup on the Sino-Soviet border. Any such increase, diplomats say, would divert China's efforts from what Deng has said is the country's top priority -- modernization and economic development.

Although trade, cultural and sporting links have increased dramatically, the two sides have failed to untangle their political problems in five rounds of talks conducted at the level of vice foreign minister. The talks resumed in 1982.

Peking has insisted that any improvement in relations be preceded by a Soviet pullback of troops from Afghanistan and China's border and a halt to Soviet support for Vietnamese troops in Cambodia.

Washington Post correspondent Dusko Doder added from Moscow:

The most delicate aspect of Arkhipov's mission will involve political discussions with Chinese leaders. Arkhipov knows personally virtually all of them.

Soviet comments on this aspect of his mission have been guarded.

A series of articles on China published in the Soviet quarterly Far Eastern Affairs on the eve of Arkhipov's departure involved criticism of China's domestic and foreign policies. One article said that Peking's decision to open China to foreign capital was a threat to the "independence of China's development."

Another article criticized the course of Sino-Japanese relations in recent years, which were described as having a "special character."