Vettel earned his third straight pole to start the season _ and will be aiming for his third straight win _ by going an impressive seven-tenths of a second quicker than McLaren's Jenson Button, who qualified ahead of his teammate Lewis Hamilton.
"We did it again," Vettel said. "I keep reminding myself and the team that it is always tough." Mercedes' Nico Rosberg will start from fourth on the grid, ahead of the Ferrari pair of Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa.
The major shock of qualifying was the elimination of Red Bull's Mark Webber in the first session _ in 18th place.
His KERS power-boost system was inoperable and the team gambled on using hard tires for his final run.
While Webber will be forced to scramble through the field to reach a points finish in Sunday's race, teammate Vettel will be odds on to become the first man since Michael Schumacher in 2004 to win the opening three races of a season.
"It all starts from zero again tomorrow," said Vettel, who took pole in China for the third straight year. "All it is is eight meters (advantage) tomorrow.
"We have reason to feel good, but it's also a threat to feel too good and I will pay attention that that doesn't happen." It was Vettel's 18th career pole position, bringing him level with Hamilton, former world champion Mario Andretti and Rene Arnoux in equal 12th on the all-time list.
Schumacher missed the top 10 for the third straight race, qualifying 14th. He was caught out by a red flag with two minutes remaining in the second stage of qualifying.
When the session resumed, 11 cars went out nose-to-tail in an attempt to have one last lap, and Schumacher was one of those caught up in the inevitable traffic, along with Renault's Nick Heidfeld, who qualified 16th.
"What a shame for me today as we have clearly demonstrated this weekend that as a team we have improved a lot," Schumacher said.
Button out-qualified Hamilton for the first time this season, but said there was no way to compete with Vettel.
"The pace in Q3 was phenomenal for Seb and the Red Bull," Button said. "When I saw Seb's time I thought 'OK, we might have to fight for second place."' Hamilton only made one run in the final session of qualifying, unlike Vettel and Button's two, saying he learned the lessons from the previous Malaysian Grand Prix where he ran out of soft tires in the race.
"The last race showed how important it is to have fresh tires for the race," Hamilton said. "I wanted to make sure I had plenty of fresh tires, so we are in a pretty good position." The Briton added that the Red Bull was "ridiculously fast" and that "it will take several races to get to where they are now." Toro Rosso impressively got both drivers through to the final session of qualifying, with Jaime Alguersuari in a career-best seventh and Sebastien Buemi in ninth. Force India rookie Paul Di Resta again showed up his more experienced teammate Adrian Sutil and qualified eighth.
Renault's Vitaly Petrov will start from 10th. He did enough to make the top 10 in Q2, but his car stalled on the track late in the session to cause the red flag.
Webber said he paid "the ultimate price" for his team's risky decision to send him out on hard tires. Having pushed Vettel hard all last season, the Australian looks as if he will be well behind his teammate in the world championship after three races.
"We thought we had enough to get through on the prime tires. We have the pace, but I couldn't get the tire working on my second run," Webber said.
"I can't remember the last time I was out in Q1; it was a long, long time ago, so it was a bad day for us." Ferrari will be hoping for a repeat of the first two races of the season, where it was off the pace in qualifying but showed a race pace as good as any other car.
However Alonso said "fifth we know is our maximum position at the moment _ we did fifth in the first two races." Dry conditions were forecast for Sunday's race. Pirelli motorsport chief Paul Hembery said "the leading runners are likely to opt for a two-stop strategy, but there is a possibility of some teams trying for one or three stops."