With its harsh terrain of mountains and deserts and rich mineral resources, China's far northwestern province of Xinjiang has often been likened to America's Wild West.

But the comparison that the province's top officials are striving for these days is not with the American frontier of more than 100 years ago, but with that of the late 20th century.

"Xinjiang will become China's California," said Wang Enmao, first party secretary and the region's top political and military leader. Wang, 71, toured California, Texas and Arizona in October. Interviewed here in the provincial capital of Urumqi (pronounced Ooloomoochee and meaning "fine pasture" in Mongolian), he predicted that China's development will probably follow that of the United States, proceeding from east to west.

Xinjiang, formerly spelled Sinkiang, (pronounced Shin Jeahng) means "new frontier." It is the largest province in China, occupies one-sixth of the nation's total area and is bigger than Britain, France, Italy and Germany combined. It is here that China tests its nuclear weapons and keeps a wary eye on its borders with unfriendly neighbors -- the Soviet Union, India, Mongolia and Afghanistan.

Xinjiang is also believed to be rich in deposits of oil, coal and rare minerals, and China's leaders hope to exploit these natural resources to fuel the country's planned modernization.

Historically, because of its distance from Peking and uneasy relations between the Chinese and indigenous ethnic minorities, Xinjiang has lagged far behind its neighboring inland provinces. It receives huge subsidies from Peking each year. Measures of education rank it 20th among China's 29 provinces and autonomous regions, local officials say.

Within the province lies a vast ocean of sand in which entire caravans have been known to vanish without a trace. Stories about the harshness of life here are so common throughout China that graduating seniors about to be assigned their first jobs by the government talk of their concern that they may be sent to this remote and desolate region.

But China's top leadership is trying to change all that.

In 1983, Premier Zhao Ziyang and Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang toured the region and targeted it to become one of China's most important development areas in the next century. "From now on, we must place the development of Xinjiang on the agenda of the construction of the entire country," he said.

But because the central authorities are unwilling to invest in an area whose potential has yet to be verified by output, officials in Xinjiang, like those all over the country, are pinning many of their hopes on foreign aid to provide them with the much-needed investment, technical personnel and equipment.

In the key area of oil, where Xinjiang's reserves are thought to be formidable, Wang particularly hopes to attract foreign investment. During his recent U.S. trip, the region's top leader held three rounds of talks with officials from the San Francisco-based Bechtel group, including board chairman Stephen Bechtel.

Wang said Xinjiang was negotiating with Bechtel, the world's largest engineering contractor, but that the talks were not yet at the contract-signing stage. Bechtel's senior group is scheduled to go to Urumqi for talks on Monday, he said.

He declined to specify the nature of the talks but said, "Any contract that would be signed will be on a very large scale."

Asia, led by China, has become the most promising area for major oil projects because of its resources and industrial development plans. Speaking of Bechtel's past projects, Wang indicated that he hoped Bechtel might be able to do for Xinjiang what it did for Saudi Arabia, where the corporation's close relationship with the Saudis led to billions of dollars in massive projects.

Bechtel representatives in Peking and Hong Kong were unavailable for comment despite repeated efforts over several weeks.

Although most of China's oil production comes from fields in the northeast, large deposits thought to be in Xinjiang have remained largely unexplored and untapped because of shortage of modern drilling equipment, skilled workers and maintenance equipment.

Under a $100 million loan from the World Bank, the region is exploring its major oil field of Karamy, which now produces less than 4 percent of China's output of about 2 million barrels of oil per day.

Xinjiang's coal reserves are believed to be among the largest in the country, Chinese officials said, but of an estimated 1.6 trillion tons of coal deposits, only 16 billion tons have been verified, they said. The region also has mineral deposits, including nickel, iron, manganese and aluminum, and gold has been discovered in 56 of the region's 80 counties.

But the most sophisticated extraction method so far has been panning, said Xia Ri, chief of the economic research division of Xinjiang's Economic Research Center, a regional think tank. The total output of gold is about one ton a year, he said. By comparison, a mine in the Soviet Union with geological conditions similar to those in Xinjiang produces 85 tons a year.

China's central authorities have made clear that they will not be investing heavily in Xinjiang until the infrastructure is built up.

"In order to develop Xinjiang, we have to give priority in development of the coastal provinces and cities before the priority goes to the west," explained party secretary Wang. "The same thing happened to California."

Under Xinjiang's circumstances, foreign assistance is even more important, local officials say. To attract more foreign investment, Xinjiang has devised a plan that would give foreigners more favorable conditions for investment than are available in the highly touted special economic zones and coastal cities, local officials said. These would include tax breaks, lower transportation fees and substantially lower prices for land and leasing, they said.

The plan is awaiting approval by the state council.

But despite optimistic forecasts and ambitious goals, provincial leaders say they realize that the development of Xinjiang -- a sparsely populated region largely dependent on agriculture and animal husbandry -- is no easy task.

Transportation, vital to an expanding economy, suffers because there are few roads, railways or energy-efficient vehicles. The region has only one major railway, which runs east-west and ends in Urumqi. Kashgar, the westernmost city in China, has no railroad connecting it to Urumqi, more than 600 miles to the northeast. Instead, it must rely on trucks and five flights a week from Urumqi for products from China's interior.

In a land where it may rain twice a year, the fields nearly all depend on irrigation with water from glacier-fed rivers. But waste of water and major irrigation problems impair agriculture and hinder large-scale programs.

In Xinjiang, the news from the official Communist Party newspaper, People's Daily, comes a day late. Those people in Kashgar who have television sets watched the Oct. 1 national day celebrations two days later, thanks to a videotape broadcast in Urumqi.

There is realistic potential for development in petrochemicals, said one western analyst, but Xinjiang lacks proximity and access to markets, and, in oil, it lacks a major pipeline.

"The logistics are pretty formidable," the analyst said. "It's not exactly the economic heartland of China." Said another analyst, "It's more like Alaska than California but, unlike Alaska, Xinjiang is landlocked."

Even with special advantages for foreigners, investors are more likely to head to other parts of China with more favorable infrastructure, he said.

China's leaders have set an overall modernization goal of quadrupling the country's 1980 GNP by the year 2,000. Xinjiang is so far behind the rest of the country that to catch up, it will need to increase its output five-fold, party secretary Wang said.

A large part of that task is now being assumed by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a 2.25-million-strong force that makes up nearly 17 percent of the region's 13 million population. Although it remains a reserve force for defense of the borders, the corps, nearly all Han Chinese, has been responsible for the construction of much of the area's new urban housing, factories, transport and communication facilities.

Officially set up as a special unit of the People's Liberation Army in 1954, it was disbanded in 1975 during the turmoil of Mao Tse-tung's 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution. It was revived in 1982 and last year it accounted for nearly one-fourth of the total output for the region.

Wang said he knows that Xinjiang's turn will come in time.

"Xinjiang has great potential. . . . If we are to develop, we can do much better than California," he said.