Raikkonen was the quicker Ferrari going into the final runs but a scrappy final sector and a superb one from Vettel gave the German pole by 0.087 seconds. However, the Ferrari driver slipped even further back to P7 when, on fading tyres following the Safety Car intervention, he was knocked into a spin by Verstappen at the hairpin.
Will Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari make it three wins in a row or can Mercedes and Red Bull respond in Shanghai? However, neither Mercedes nor Ferrari reacted to the safety auto with their second drivers, leaving Lewis Hamiton, who was running third, and Kimi Raikkonen - fifth after the safety vehicle pitted - to struggle to the end on used rubber.
Carlos Sainz was ninth for Renault with Sergey Sirotkin an encouraging 10th for former champions Williams, who are enduring their worst start to a season since 2013 and are the only one of the 10 teams yet to score a point. "But it was definitely out of reach today".
"(Either) Mercedes were really struggling out there or Ferrari were just unbelievably on it".
"They have a really strong auto", he said.
Hamilton also seemed to accept the Ferrari dominance.
"Yes, tomorrow will be the proof of concept", he said.
But Red Bull could still be in the mix for victory in China, if it can gain track position thanks to the advantage of extra grip off the start line afforded by running the softest tyre.
Lewis Hamilton has won this race more than anyone.
"In the hairpin at turn 14, just under braking, outside I could really see people go insane", Vettel commented. The Australian joined the track with just three minutes on the clock in the first qualifying session and narrowly avoided the first knockout zone with a time that was only good enough for 14th. I don't know. There is nothing I can do.
Vettel won in Australia, and last week in Bahrain.
"The first races have been a bit different", Vettel said.
The safety vehicle was triggered on lap 30 by a coming together of Torro Rossa drivers Brendan Hartley and Pierre Gasly, who tangled when Gasly had a go at his team-mate into the hairpin, the resultant contact leaving debris strewn across the track.
"I wouldn't be surprised if tomorrow that gap [over Mercedes] disappears and it will be a very tight race", he said. Sunday will be warmer with temperatures near 20C (68F) at the circuit outside central Shanghai.
Hamilton is being hopeful. Hamilton's win here last year marked his third in four years, his fifth overall, and Mercedes' fifth in the last six China Grand Prix races.