BEIJING -- When Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu arrives here tomorrow, China's leaders may be excused if they fall all over themselves to give him a warm welcome.
The Japanese prime minister's three-day visit to Beijing will be the first by a leader of a major industrialized nation since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 sparked worldwide rebuke and the imposition of diplomatic, economic and military sanctions against China.
Mr. Kaifu's visit underscores not only the importance of China for Japan, but also China's remarkably quick and artfully managed return to better graces with much of the world -- except the United States.
The United States still maintains post-Tiananmen bans on military cooperation, the transfer of certain advanced technologies and high-level diplomatic visits. But formal relations with Japan and the major European nations have over the past year returned virtually to their pre-Tiananmen status.
Confirming China's diplomatic rebirth, British Prime Minister John Major will follow Mr. Kaifu here in September, a visit that probably will have an even greater impact in the West in terms of shedding the vestiges of China's isolation. Reports this week indicated that Margaret Thatcher, Mr. Major's predecessor, may also visit here in September.
Moreover, there are rumors within the diplomatic community here that, once the current American debate on renewing China's favorable trade status is resolved for this year, President Bush or Secretary of State James A. Baker III could come here. A presidential visit could fall during Mr. Bush's scheduled swing through Asia in November.
Even without the tribute of a high-level U.S. visit this year, though, China's hard-line leaders have more than enough reasons to take satisfaction in their marked diplomatic strides since the Tiananmen debacle.
A short list of their accomplishments includes: establishing rela tions with Saudi Arabia and Singapore, restoring ties with Indonesia, opening trade offices and soon perhaps consulates with South Korea, warming unofficial contacts with Israel and improving relations with Cuba, Vietnam and the Soviet Union.
These advances have come even as China has found itself more isolated ideologically in a world where the influence of communism is dwindling. And they have come despite China's reduced overall geopolitical importance for the West because of the end of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Though China's place in the emerging "new world order" appears diminished from its role in the 1980s, its permanent membership and veto power in the United Nations Security Council still guarantee clout and attention.
The Persian Gulf war, for example, provided China with an unexpected opportunity to ingratiate itself with Western nations by not vetoing resolutions against Iraq, a fence-sitting posture that also enabled China to avoid dropping its banner as the leader of the Third World.
China also has earned diplomatic points in the West for its behind-the-scenes efforts to seek peaceful resolutions to long-standing conflicts in Cambodia and the Korean peninsula.
But China's comeback could not have proceeded so rapidly without the help of Japan, which of all the major industrialized nations has led the way in normalizing ties.
China is Japan's largest foreign aid beneficiary, and its potential as a lucrative consumer market and source of badly needed natural resources for Japan is enormous. The two nations of course share deep historical and cultural ties, a relationship still burdened by Japan's guilt over its atrocities in China during World War II.
Japan began pressing the other six major industrial nations at last year's Group of Seven summit in Houston to renew international lending to China, and immediately afterward it resumed a long-term $6 billion aid program to China that had been suspended after Tiananmen.
China also chose Japan for its first post-Tiananmen plunge into international debt markets, issuing $145 million in Bank of China bonds there this summer. A second Chinese bond issue is planned.
The points that may be discussed during Mr. Kaifu's visit here range from a reported Chinese request for a $5 billion loan program for energy projects to the forthcoming celebra tion of the 20th anniversary of the restoration of ties between the two countries. The event could bring Japan's Emperor Akihito.
Japanese diplomats here scoff at the notion that all this may suggest the Japanese are less concerned than Western nations with such issues as China's human rights abuses. Japan, they insist, shares with the West the same standards on human rights and differs only in how firmly to press China for improvements.
Japan also is concerned about China's role in the worldwide proliferation of nuclear and conventional arms, diplomats here say. This weekend, Mr. Kaifu will ask China's leaders to participate in international systems aimed at tracking the transfer of weapons.
At the same time, however, among the images that surely will endure from Mr. Kaifu's visit will be his planned stop Sunday at Tiananmen Square to lay a memorial wreath at the Monument to the People's Heroes, dedicated to those who died in the revolution that put the Communist Party in power here half a century ago.
It was on the steps leading to this monument that a band of Tiananmen protesters made their last stand in the early hours of June 4, 1989, in the face of thousands of armed troops who had killed their way through Beijing's streets toward the huge square.
The wreath-laying ceremony "is a normal practice of world leaders having a trip to China," explained a Japanese diplomat here. But China's besieged leaders doubtlessly are counting on this "normal practice" as another step toward erasing from the world's memory the bloody events that took place in Tiananmen Square.