China has indicated its willingness to offer Vietnam a face-saving diplomatic formula to end the current military conflict, according to Western diplomatic reports from Peking.
The formula offered by the Chinese involves Peking's abandonment of the Pol Pot forces in Cambodia and acceptance of a government headed by Prince Sihanouk, in exchange for a complete Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia.
Diplomatic analysts here expressed skepticism about Vietnam's accepting such a solution, but the diplomats stressed that the question of face seems to have become one of the main considerations in the conflict.
After the neutralist government of Prince Sihanouk was first ousted by pro-American generals in the midst of the Vietnam war, the prince took refuge Peking. The Communist forces that later conquered Cambodia did so in his name but then held him a virtual prisoner when he belatedly came home from China.
When they finally let him leave again, just ahead of invading Vietnamese forces, he spoke on the behalf of the Pol Pot government at the United Nations but acted as if he was once again going into political exile in Peking.
The Chinese were the sole international backer of the Pol Pot government and their invasion of Vietnam is widely thought to be in retaliation for the Vietnamese incursion into Cambodia and subsequent establishment of a pro-Hanoi government there. Pol Pot's followers are battling the new leaders.
France, meanwhile, issued a statement today calling on China to withdraw its forces from Vietnam. The French statement was echoed by two milder declarations by the West German government issued in conjunction with a meeting here today and yesterday between French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing and West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt.
West German officials in Bonn were open about their unwillingness to go as far as the French, saying Bonn has fewer interests in Indochina, a former French colony.
The French spoke of their "growing preoccupation" with "the events that are taking place within the Sino-Vietnamese borders" and called for "the withdrawal to the international frontier of the forces which crossed it."
By referring only to Vietnam and China and to a single frontier, the French made it clear that they were condemning the Chinese incursion.
A statement tonight by the West German press office referred more broadly to the need to "observe the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of every single state in the region." That was designed to be a more evenhanded reference to the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia as well as to the Chinese invasion of Vietnam.
West Germany apparently was not planning to go even that far but was embarrassed into it by the French. Earlier in the day the Foreign Ministry in Bonn simply welcomed the summoning of the U.N. Security Council and called for peace "on the basis of the principles of the United Nations charter."