The Carter administration yesterday continued to confront the Chinese invasion of Vietnam with the most gentle of public condemnations, and said formally that the assault would not affect the continuing normalization of diplomatic relations with Peking.
Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance called in Chinese Ambassador Chai Ze-min for a 15-minute discussion, which State Department spokesman Hodding Carter later stressed dealt with the Indochina conflict in a general way rather than as "an intense conversation on any particular subject."
The spokesman could not give any indication that the Chinese diplomat had given Vance a clear description of the scope and final objectives of the Chinese push into Vietnam.
Other U.S. officials said they do not believe that China has begun to pull its troops back, but they noted that China is saying, in a wide variety of diplomatic contacts with other countries, that the attack is intended to be of very short duration and limited in scope.
In a carefully considered and drafted foreign-policy speech yesterday in Atlanta, President Carter made a subtle semantic bow toward acceptance of China's portrayal of its strike as an effort to punish Hanoi for the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in January.
"In the last few weeks, we have seen a Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, and, as a result, a Chinese border penetration into Vietnam," Carter said, adding that his administration opposes both actions.
The president said the United States would work "directly with the countries involved and through the United Nations" for an end to the fighting and for withdrawals by the Vietnamese from Cambodia and the Chinese from Vietnam.
U.S. officials said that intensive behind-the-scenes diplomatic contacts with Asian and ohter nations to keep the Chinese invasion from widening into a bigger conflict are going forward. But Vietnam's failure to call formally for a U.N. Security Council meeting so far has surprised the administration and left unclear what role the United Nations can play in resolving the conflict.
The comments by the president and the State Department spokesman indicated that U.S. opposition to the Chinese attack would not be translated into specific expressions of disapproval.
The normalization of relations between Peking and Washington "is already an accomplished fact, and will not be reversed," President Carter said. "What was involved here was the simple recognition of the reality of the government in Peking."
Hodding Carter said that scheduled visits to China by Treasury Secretary W. Michael Blumenthal and other officials were not being postponed.
The administration had cited Vietnam's military attacks on the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia as a factor in the slowing down of earlier efforts to normalize relations between Hanoi and Washington.
A senior official indicated (Word Illegible) administration sees the Vietnamese movement of an "occupation" force into Cambodia and the establishing there of a pro-Vietnamese regime with which Hanoi has signed a treaty as far more serious moves than the Chinese incursion.
Asked three times yesterday if the administration favored a unilateral Chinese withdrawal from Vietnam, Hodding Carter each time responded by saying that the administration wants both the Vietnamese and Chinese to withdraw.
He again rejected Soviet press accusations that the United States encouraged China to attack Vietnam.
During talks with the president in Washington in January, Chinese Vice Premier Teng Hsiao-ping "made it apparent they had some unspecified intention to deal with what the vice premier regarded as a need to teach Vietnam a lesson," the State Department spokesman said, but "we did not either give a green light or have a battle plan presented to us."