Apple today announced that it will sell the iPad in China starting this Friday, September 17. Only the three WiFi models will be available, not the 3G-capable configurations, Apple said.

The three models will be priced at 3988 yuan ($587) for the 16GB tablet, 4788 yuan ($705) for the 32GB iPad and 5588 yuan ($823) for the 64GB device. Prices in the US are somewhat lower, ranging from $499 for the 16GB configuration to $699 for the 64GB.

"Apple wants to get into the China market as soon as they can before the competition heats up," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, pointing out that rival tablets, some slated to be powered by Google's Android or Chrome OS operating systems, should be on the market later this year.

Apple introduced the iPad in the US in April, and expanded its reach to Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, Switzerland and the UK in late May. Today, the company repeated its promise to roll out the iPad "to many more countries later this year," but did not say which countries or when.

While Chinese buyers in general may be price sensitive, and thus seemingly unlikely to purchase high-priced Apple products, Gottheil said that doesn't preclude Apple from doing well in the country. "Inside that large market there's a portion who will buy higher-priced goods," said Gottheil. "Remember, Apple's been making some major in-roads into developing markets like China."

In the second quarter of 2010, Apple's Mac sales in China were up 144% over the same period in the year before, company executives said in July.

Analysts have been regularly updating their iPad sales projections since the tablet's April debut. Brian Marshall, with Gleacher & Co, for example, recently boosted his estimates to 12 million for 2010 and 20 million for 2011. Others have pegged 2011's sales as high as 28 million.

"While China's a large market, it will be interesting to see how many can afford an iPad as the per-capita income is relatively low," said Marshall in an email today as he differed with Gottheil. "Perhaps a couple million units in 2011 is a good starting point [for China iPad sales], and let's see how it develops."

Apple will sell the iPad in its own retail stores in China, currently it has stores only in Beijing and Shanghai, as well as at some authorised resellers. It will not sell the iPad through its Chinese online store.

According to other reports, China Unicom will start selling Apple's iPhone 4 to its customers this week.