This is supposedly the year of the South Korean lobby, but, as the Vance trip to Peking reminds us, the old China lobby is still alive and can still teach the Koreans a thing or two about making friends with U.S. politicians - or, if necessary, intimidating them.

The China lobby was organized almost 30 years ago by the backers of Chiang Kai-shek to ensure U.S. supoort for his Nationalist forces after they were driven from the mainland by th Communist forces of Mao Tse-tung, Chiang's influence-peddlers developed the novel idea of diverting U.S. aid money to investment in U.S. politics and public opinion. It was far more effective and sophisticated operation than the Korean one, with its crude efforts to bribe and subvert the Congress. Unlike the Koreans, the Taiwanese and their agents left no fingerprints. Nobody was ever prosecuted.

Nevertheless, for almost three decades the Chiang mission was a winner. Billions of dollars in military and economic aid flowed to Taiwan. Those who opposed it had to run the risk of being stigmatized as soft on communism.

Above all, the Nationalists, strongly backed by American right-wing forces, succeeded in preventing, or at least indefinitely delaying, the normalization of relations between the United States and the People's Republic of China - specifically, formal recognition and the establishment of embassies in Peking and Washington.

[WORD ILLEGIBLE] recent American Presidents have wanted to move in this directiion, and one - Richard Nixon - no doubt would have succeeded had not the Watergate scandal immobilized him soon after his historic goodwill trip to Peking in 1972.

One President after another, fearful of domestic political reaction, has hesitated to bite the bullet, and President Carter appears to be no exception. When Secretary of State Cyrus Vance took off for Peking this week, he obviously was mindful of Carter's reservation that, while recognition of China was among his goals, "we don't feel any urgency about the normalization of relations with the People's Republic."

On the question of official recognition, the Secretary was apparently limited to saying, "Don't call us; we'll cal you." That's what other Presidents have also said, especially Nixon, but so far none have picked up the phone. As some of our leading Asian scholars have been warning, the day may come when a call from Washington won't be accepted, particularly if Peking by that time is on the line to Moscow again.

There is good reason to believe that the Carter administratiion, including the President himself, sincerely wants to come to terms with Peking, as have our allies, including Japan. But, as in the past, the White House doens't think the time is quite right.

Timing was a factor for President John F. Kennedy, who also thought U.S. policy on Peking was "irrational." But after the Cuban Bay of Pigs disaster, the Vienna clash with Nikita Khrushchev and the erection of the Berling Wall, he did not fell the climate was favorable for a new China deal in his first year as President.

Carter, in turn, seems in no mood to act quickly on China. Right-wing forces are alread agitated over the proposed canal treaty with Panama, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea and the moves toward rapprochement with Cuba. An immediate embrace of Communist China might trigger an all-out attack by the ultraconservatives.

Yet, it is also fair to say that the time will probably never come when any administration can recognize China without encountering some domestic resistance. The remnants of the old China lobby will see to that. But does the resistance truly reflect American opinion?

For years, national polls have shown an increasing majority in favor of rapprochement with Peking. The latest poll, conducted by Potomac Associates, shows a 62 to 21 majority for establishing full diplomatic relations. On the other hand , 47 per cent are against severing ties with Taiwan. the acid test, however, is whether Americans would be willing to send U.S. troops back to Asia to defend Taiwan. I've yet to see a poll indicating they would. Quite the contrary.

The situation recalls the fight over allowing Peking into the United Nations, which the United States blocked for over 25 years because of domestic political opposition. When Nixon finally yielded, though, he emerged without a political scratch. The right-wing bark was worse than its bite.

Those who count on th prolonged patience of the Chinese like to quote an old saying of Mao's : "If the Americans do not recognize us in 100 years, they will recognize us in 101 years." By that time, however, it may not matter.