China’s smartphone market is already ahead of the US on quarterly device shipments and device activations, and now the volume of smartphone shipments has overtaken feature phones in the country for the first time.

According to a report from China’s Sina Tech [via Tech In Asia] China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) revealed that, over the last three months, smartphones have accounted for 56.9 percent of the phones shipped to retailers in the country.

That figure is significant as it represents a serious change in course for mainstream mobile phone ownership and usage. The majority of China’s 1 billion plus mobile phones are feature phones, but the retail industry’s increased interest in stocking and selling smartphones is clear evidence that consumer interest and sales of the advanced mobile devices is continuing to surge.

Research from Nikko Partners predicts that the number of active smartphones in China will pass 200 million by the end of 2012, that’s still just 20 percent of the total number of devices. With smartphone shipments likely to continue to grow, it remains to be seen how much faster the smartphone market will develop in 2013.

One thing that is clear is that Android will play a major part in that development. Building on the fact that Android owns 55 percent of China’s smartphone market, the MIIT found that the Google-owner platform accounted for 97 percent the 822 different smartphone models that shipped in 2012, though that doesn’t reflect its ratio of the volume of shipments.

The MIIT has also revealed that, this year to date, China has shipped more 3G than 2G phones – circa 107 million of the 190 million units. That figure is less surprisingly considering that all three carriers are continuing to push 3G-centric deals, offering deals with a range of devices and subsidised deals, which now even cover high-end models like the iPhone 4S.

Analyst firm Canalys recently predicted that 40 percent of all smartphones in China will cost less than $200 by 2015, and ‘affordable smartphones’ from the likes of Baidu — and its Cloud OS — Alibaba — and its Aliyun OS — and other Chinese firms are seen as key to increasing mass market smartphone adoption.

Given China’s rural-urban divide, it seems unlikely that smartphone ownership will reach Western levels for some time, if ever, but with retailers bracing themselves for more sale growth, adoption is set to grow significantly.

Note: It’s worth bearing in mind that it isn’t entirely clear how MIIT grades a device a ‘smartphone’. Phones running Nokia’s dated Symbian platform are often categorised as smartphones in figures out of China, but the fact that Android accounts for a high proportion of phones suggests that the data is focused on feature-centric smartphones, and not older devices like the Symbian range.

Image via Flickr / Timquijano