Q. Mr. President... did you at any point ask the Chinese to provide a binding, written pledge that they would not try to seize Taiwan by force? And if you did request that, why didn't you get it? And if you didn't, why didn't you ask for it ?

A. Yes. One of our goals in the negotiation was to get a public commitment on the part of China that the differences with Taiwan would be resolved peacefully. This was not possible to achieve ....

Jan. 17 news conference

The answer should have been no, officials now concede.

The Carter administration never asked the mainland Chinese for a formal assurance that they would not try to take Taiwan by force, according to informed officials at the White House and the State Department.

The officials stressed in private conversations that it was always an "implicit" objective of the United States to obtain a formal commitment from the People's Republic of China not to use force against Taiwan once the United States recognized China and severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan. And thus, they said, they believe Carter was technically correct to state that this was "one of our goals" and that it proved "not possible to achieve."

But even if it was technically accurate, the president's carefully worded answer left an impression that had little to do with the truth. He had been asked if his administration pressed China specifically on this issue. And the truth, as disclosed by these informed officials, is that Carter administration negotiators did not.

Neither presidential national security affairs adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, nor Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance, nor Ambassador to China Leonard Woodcock -- nor Carter himself -- ever specifically pressed for a formal assurance from the Chinese, the officials said in interviews.

The Chinese historically maintained that they could never give an assurance of refraining from the use of force against Taiwan because they considered the question a matter of "sovereignty," the Carter officials said. "This was the officially stated Chinese position from 1955 on," one official said. "They had made this clear publicly many times."

In April 1977, a National Security Council document known as Presidential Review Memorandum 24 set a goal for the normalization of relations the obtaining of a specific commitment from Peking that there would be no use of force against Taiwan. This was to be in exchange for the United States ending its defense treaty with Taiwan.

But PRM-24 was reviewed again in June and July by the president and his top advisers, one official said. And they decided then that it was unrealistic to expect that China would give a public assurance on this.

When Vance went to Peking in August 1977, his instructions called for him to obtain "tacit or explicit" assurance from the Chinese about Taiwan, the official said. "Vance did discuss the matter with the Chinese," according to this official, "but he did not ask them for a specific statement on it."

And, it has not been specifically raised since.

Instead, according to the officials, the U.S. negotiators -- Brzezinski, Vance, Woodcock, and, in an Oval Office session Sept. 19, the president -- spoke in terms of American expectations and assumptions.

As one official explained, "We would say to the Chinese: 'We have our expectations... We are proceeding on the assumption that Taiwan will be dealt with peacefully. Do you understand that?'"

The official said that there were times in the negotiations when the Chinese would respond that the U.S. negotiators "should not proceed on that assumption."

According to the official, the Chinese would say, "They are a bunch of reactionaries on Taiwan and we might have to take Taiwan by force."

At all times the Chinese stressed in the negotiations that Taiwan is a matter of Chinese sovereignty. "So for us," said one official," the question became what would they say after making that statement?

"Would they continue to say, '... and we may have to take Taiwan by force'? Or would they say, 'We expect that we will be able to reunite Taiwan with the mainland peacefully. That is what we want.'"

Eventually, the officials said, the Chinese incorporated into their response this latter statement of a desire to handle reunification peacefully.

And that became the basis upon which the United States pressed for the completion of the normalization process.

"The final outcome of that," as Carter went on to say in his Jan. 17 press conference reply, "was that we would make a unilateral statement that we expect any differences between Taiwan and China to be resolved peacefully, and the agreement was that the leaders in China would not contradict that statement."

And that is precisely what came to pass.

Brzezinski, who was the dominant force in wrapping up the normalization agreement for Carter, defends the decision. To Brzezinski it is a matter of foreign policy, not domestic politics. And, as he sees it the decision makes sense because Peking had maintained for years it would never give such an assurance; it really makes no difference anyway because China is not now militarily capable of militarily taking Taiwan, and will not be able to for some time without the greatest military risk to its own forces.