The German clocked one minute 34.558 seconds to pip team mate Mark Webber [ Images ] with his final lap and claim his third pole position of the year -- the eighth of his career -- and justify his position as favourite in Shanghai.
"It was a fantastic lap," the 22-year-old told reporters.
"Fourth consecutive pole position for Red Bull, we have proved that we have a very fast car. But we'll see tomorrow, it could be wet," he added.
Vettel led Australian Webber to a Red Bull one-two in the last race in Malaysia as well as in the Shanghai rain last year and he will take the lead in the drivers' championship with victory on Sunday.
While continuing one run of form, Vettel will have to break another to triumph however: None of the last five races have been won by the driver on pole.
"It was a good battle again between both of us," said Webber, who took pole in Malaysia only to be passed by Vettel on the first corner.
"It was definitely a good lap by Seb, I was very happy with my lap. Credit to the team, we've locked down the front row again," he added.
Twice world champion Fernando Alonso [ Images ] of Spain was third quickest for Ferrari [ Images ] and will line up alongside the Mercedes [ Images ] of German Nico Rosberg [ Images ], again quicker than team mate Michael Schumacher [ Images ], on the second row of the grid.
"Once again this was our maximum potential in qualifying, we know that the race pace is better for us," said Alonso, who was also third on the grid in the first two races of the season and won in Bahrain.
"But in a normal situation, this is the maximum we can do at the moment," he added.
Briton Lewis Hamilton [ Images ] led for most of qualifying but was slower in the decisive third session and had to settle for a place on the third row of the grid alongside his McLaren [ Images ] team mate and world champion Jenson Button [ Images ], who was fifth quickest.
Button has now out-qualified Hamilton in three of the season's four races so far. "We were doing so well. It was quite easy to be up at the front," Hamilton, the 2008 world champion, said.
"I really don't understand what was wrong with the car in Q3, but I wasn't able to get anymore time out of it. That was me on the limit," he added.
Championship leader Felipe Massa [ Images ] of Brazil [ Images ] was seventh fastest for Ferrari ahead of Poland's Robert Kubica [ Images ], who was again impressively quick for Renault [ Images ] to edge seven-times world champion Schumacher into ninth place for Mercedes.
On a cool but sunny Shanghai day, there was never the prospect of the torrential downpour that ruined McLaren and Ferrari's qualifying last time out in Malaysia. Rain is, however, forecast for Sunday.
"Tomorrow's race will be determined by the weather," said Alonso."In those kind of races anyone can win," he added.