China set to surpass 1 billion mobile connections

China is closing in on the 1 billion mobile connections mark, which it will likely surpass before the end of March, according to a new Wireless Intelligence report. China has always been a world power in wireless, but its importance is poised to grow further as its huge population is now embracing mobile data services.

China has long been the largest single market for subscriber growth, but that growth was mainly driven by low-end devices and voice services. Now that all threes of China’s major operators — China Mobile(s chl), China Unicom(s chu), and China Telecom(s cha) – have launched 3G networks, smartphones and other mobile data devices are proliferating. 3G connections surpassed 200 million at the end of 2011, which is still only a fifth of China’s total subscribers, but 3G devices account for 80 percent of all new sales, according to the report.

Demand for smartphones is huge, as evidenced by the unruly crowds that formed at Apple’s stores last week for the launch of the iPhone 4S with China Unicom. In October, Apple(s aapl) said China had become its most important market outside of the U.S. for all its products. China Unicom is also diversifying into Android using Google’s(s goog) platform to feed the growing demand for cheap smartphones. Wireless Intelligence said Unicom estimates it will sell 90 million low-cost smartphones this year in addition to 60 million high-end device like the iPhone.

To put those numbers in perspective, wireless trade organization CTIA reported that in June the U.S. had 322.9 million connections, which already exceeds the U.S. population. According to China’s last census, its population numbered 1.3 billion, which means it still has plenty of room to grow. If China’s huge rate of smartphone adoption continues, the U.S. will could wind up playing second fiddle to China on the wireless global stage.