SOME TRULY bizarre echoes of the American Vietnam involvement drifted out of Secretary of State Alexander Haig's East Asian prograss. In Peking his regional aide, John Holdridge, gave an address to the American Club in which he spoke of the United States' hopes and plans for ending Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia. Normalizing relations with Hanoi won't work, Mr. Holdridge said: "if you give [the Vietnamese] what they want, this does not make them change their policy in any way. So we will seek, if we can, to find ways to increase the political, economic and, yes, military pressures on Vietnam, working with others in ways which will bring about, we hope, some change in Hanoi's attitude toward the situation."
"And, yes, military pressures on Vietnam": What an extraordinary suggestion for an American official to make, especially in China, which is already supporting some of the very anti-Vietnam Cambodians to whom Mr. Holdridge was evidently alluding. Secretary Haig later retreated to the more cautious formulation that no aid decision has been made. Still, it seems unthinkable that, barely six years after ending one intervention in Southeast Asia, the United States should be close enought to considering support of another to be floating a trial balloon. Would American public opinion stand still for one minute for an indirect re-entry to the Indochina wars?
The truth is that, on Vietnam, the United States is caught between bad choices. One choice is normalization; this would entail cultivating Vietnam's "Titoist" nationalist instincts and playing on its evident frictions with the Soviet Union, as New Zealand, for one, recommends. But the administration's ideology and sense of strategy, and the domestic politics of it all, inclune it against this policy. A second choice is the sort of full-court press Assistant Secretary Holdridge described in Peking. But not only would much fo American public opinion object to a military dimension. As distressed as they are by Vietnamese aggression, a number of the United States' allies and friends in the region are not averse to seeing China, a traditional threat, distracted by Vietnam.
Already under Jimmy Carter this country was stiffening its military posture in Asia. Mr. Reagan is extending that policy in ways -- the sale of arms to Peking, for instance -- whose implications the region will need some time to absorb. The United States remains part of the regional balance of power. But it is not now given to the United States to set straight the affairs of Indochia. It never was.