Apple gets China Telecom, but China Mobile still out of its grasp

Apple’s iPhone 4S(s AAPL) will arrive very soon on China Telecom, China’s third-largest carrier. The phone will be available for sale starting March 9. It’s an important step for Apple, which has highly prioritized its business in China, but the number of customers it will reach on that network will pale in comparison to the roughly 650 million Apple could reach by striking a deal with China Mobile.

The China Telecom deal has been in the works for a while. Last month it was reported that only the final steps for the phone to be certified to run on the network remained, and that the deal would be finished by the end of February. By offering the iPhone 4S — of which Apple has sold 37 million units in just three months — to China Telecom’s 15 million customers, Apple stands to add to its already impressive tally for number of iPhone 4Ses sold.

But more importantly, by adding yet another carrier, Apple is moving closer to more fully addressing its second-most important market in the world. It already has China Unicom, where one out of every five of the carrier’s subscribers have chosen the iPhone, according to Morgan Stanley’s Katy Huberty.

The big “get,” however, is China Mobile, which has a 70 percent share of mobile customers in China. The two sides have been talking, but there are still some technical hurdles. Considering how important China is to Apple, it seems like Cupertino would find a way to iron those out eventually.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has been very clear about his commitment to the country and has said he’s “never seen a country with as many people rising into the middle class aspiring to buy products that Apple makes. It’s an area of enormous opportunity.”