A high-ranking delegation of petroleum experts from the People's Republic of China will visit the United States early next month at the invitation of the Department of Energy, the first such tour ever officially sponsored by a U.S. government agency.

The group of 16 oil and gas experts will arrive in Washington on Jan. 5 and will spend three weeks meeting with top U.S. energy officials and touring production, exploration and development facilities in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and California, a department spokesman confirmed yesterday. The department will formally announce the details early next week.

Leading the delegation will be Sun Ching-wen, president of China's Petroleum and Natural Gas Corp and identified in April, 1976, as a vice minister for the oil and chemical industries. Accompanying him as a "senior adviser" will be Li Jen-chun, vice minister of the State Planning Council and the highest-ranking Chinese official ever to visit this country.

"We're pleased this visit is taking place." said a Carter administration spokesman who asked not to be identified. "It's part of the process begun with the Shanghai Communique, which calls for increased scientific, commercial and cultural contacts between our two nations. We see this visit as an important step in that direction." The Shanghai Communique was signed by President Nixon and the late Premier Chou En-lai in February, 1972.

Another person close to the planning of the trip added, "The rank of the members and the size of the delegation are extremely significant in terms of the state of U.S.-Chinese relations. It's clear indication of Chinese interest in remaining on cordial terms with the United States, and it's a very significant political event."

The details of the delegation's itinerary remain to be worked out, but the visit will include field trips to onshore drilling rigs, and oil rig equipment, service and manufacturing centers.

Last May, Chinese Communist Party Chairman Hua Kuo-feng called for creation of 10 more oil fields the size of Taching, China's largest. American officials and corporations would like to provide the technology to develop those fields.

Nicholas H. Ludlow of the National Council for U.S.-China Trade, a trade group which helped arrange the visit, estimated that in the last five years the Chinese government has purchased more than $300 million worth of oil equipment from American firms.

"The Chinese oil representatives may find uses for the oil technology and equipment they see," the Energy Department spokesman said yesterday, "and that could translate into purchases and continued reciprocal visits."

The United States would also benefit, the administration official said, to the extend that China can develop its energy resources, become an energy exporter. Last year China produced about 1.7 million barrels of oil a day and consumed 1.5 million barrels, far below the U.S. consumption level of about 18 million barrels a day.

There is no one reliable industry estimate of the size of Chinese oil reserves. A June, 1977, Central Intelligence Agency report on the oil industry there said: "Not even the Chinese know the size of their reserves . . . Working with limited information, experts . . . generally agree that China's onshore oil reserves are comparable with the 39 billion barrels remaining in the United States . . . The most optimistic estimates suggest offshore oil reserves are about the same as onshore."

The idea for the visit came from the Energy Department's Office of International Affairs. Officials there contacted the Chinese liaison office in Washington and developed plans for the trip.

This newest development in Washington-Peking oil diplomacy is part of a series of recent exchanges, including a June, 1977, trip by 10 Chinese petroleum experts to 47 drilling equipment firms in the American West and Southwest. That visit was sponsored by the National Council for U.S.-China Trade.

Last week, the trade group sponsored a visit to China by oil industry technical experts from Houston. They were scheduled to visit Sheng-li, Chiaa's second largest oil field, and give technical talks in Peking on various aspects of the industry.