SAN FRANCISCO -- With the introduction of a cheaper iPhone on Tuesday, Apple took a step toward catering to China, the world's largest smartphone market and one that is crucial to the company's future.
But the cost of the phone -- more than $700 in China -- will still keep Apple's phones beyond the reach of most Chinese consumers. And that predicament only underscores what has become increasingly clear in recent months: that Apple's fortunes in China largely depend not on any phone, but on reaching a deal with China Mobile, the country's largest cellphone carrier.
On Wednesday, Apple took another step in that partnership, when the Chinese government said that Apple's phones could run on China Mobile's new cell network, essentially paving the way for a deal between the companies.
An agreement would instantly give Apple access to China Mobile's 700 million customers, and reaching it might require Apple to bend on price. China Mobile has been holding out on a deal for years, and it is now positioned to ask for better terms with Apple.
"The only way they'll have a significantly better time in China over the next 12 months is if they can sign China Mobile," said Jan Dawson, a telecom analyst for Ovum. "A small percentage would be a large number of new customers for Apple. So it's even more crucial now that Apple gets that deal done."
Apple has recently pursued an aggressive strategy for China. For the first time, Apple's new phones will be released in China at the same time as they are in the United States. Analysts say the new gold color being offered for the higher-end iPhone 5S was probably designed for wealthy Chinese who enjoy flashing smartphones the same way they show off jewelry. And Apple has tailored some software features of its products for the Chinese, including easier setup for Chinese e-mail services.
China's cellphone market is growing quickly, surpassing the American market last year. But so far, most Chinese consumers are gravitating toward cheap Android smartphones that can be bought for as little as $100 at full price from handset makers like Xiaomi, Huawei and ZTE.
Apple has been left as No. 6 in the Chinese market, and sales of its products in the country were down 4 percent in the second quarter compared with the same period last year. Though Apple is still enormously successful, its profit growth has slowed and its stock price has struggled. On Wednesday, the company's shares fell more than 5 percent.
In exchange for adding Apple to its lineup, China Mobile may demand that Apple help subsidize the cost of the iPhones. It might ask for a better cut of each iPhone sale. Or it could just ask for a more lax contract, in which it can reduce the prices of the phones. In the United States and some European markets, Apple has forbidden carriers from discounting the price of the iPhone.
"With every passing month, China Mobile is getting stronger and Apple is getting weaker," said Tero Kuittinen, a mobile analyst for Alekstra. "We have a moment where all of the cards are in China Mobile's hands."
When the new iPhones, the 5C and 5S, are released on Sept. 20, they will be available through two other Chinese mobile carriers, China Unicom and China Telecom, which together have more than 400 million subscribers.
Apple said on its Web site that the iPhone 5C, the cheaper model, would start at 4,488 renminbi, or $733, without subsidies from mobile operators. The new flagship iPhone 5S will start at 5,288 renminbi, or $864. That price is more than one-third higher in China than the $550 unsubsidized cost for the iPhone 5S in the United States.
Apple products have always been more expensive in China than in the United States -- even though iPhones are actually assembled in China. That is because iPhones sold in China are subject to a 17 percent value-added tax, while those that are exported can be sent abroad tax-free.
The cost in mainland China is also higher than it is in Hong Kong, where there is no value-added tax or sales tax. There, Apple announced a price of 4,688 Hong Kong dollars, or $604, for the iPhone 5C.
Yet even with that 17 percent factored in, Apple appears to be marking up the iPhone 5C substantially in China, potentially giving the company room to maneuver later. Chinese carriers do not generally subsidize the handset price for consumers, but they often discount their monthly bills. So the eventual cost to consumers has plenty of room to come down.
Some analysts said Apple might have announced a high initial price in China to justify eventual price cuts. If an agreement with China Mobile were to come soon, Apple could then reap a marketing benefit by cutting prices just as it gained access to a vast new consumer base.
Ben Bajarin, a technology analyst for Creative Strategies, a consulting firm, said it was possible that China Mobile could trim the cost of the iPhone 5C and use the device to lure customers into paying for more expensive smartphone plans.
"That's the one thing the iPhone's been remarkably good at," he said, "is driving value to the premium data service."
Eric Pfanner reported from Tokyo. Eric Pfanner reported from Tokyo.interact
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.