The percentage of adults in China with diabetes surpassed that of the United States in 2010, with almost 12 percent suffering from the disease, driven largely by economic prosperity, researchers said.
The overall prevalence of diabetes in China in 2010 was found to be 11.6 percent of adults -- 12.1 percent in men, and 11 percent in women, according to the study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).
In the United States, about 11.3 percent of people over 20 have diabetes according to 2011 data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The disease was more common in China than in the United States even though the population was slimmer -- average body mass index, a ratio of height and body weight, was just 23.7 in China compared to 28.7 in the United States.
"The prevalence of diabetes has increased significantly in recent decades," said the JAMA study.
"These data suggest that diabetes may have reached an alert level in the Chinese general population, with the potential for a major epidemic of diabetes-related complications, including cardiovascular disease, stroke, and chronic kidney disease in China in the near future without an effective national intervention."
Only 30 percent of Chinese with diabetes were aware of their condition, it said.
Further, about half of the population has high blood sugar, or a condition known as prediabetes, according to a nationally representative sample of Chinese adults.
Diabetes has been rising in China along with the nation's economic growth. In 1980, the prevalence of diabetes was less than one percent of the population.
The latest findings mark a more than two percentage point increase over 2007, when a national survey found a 9.7 percent prevalence of diabetes, or about 92.5 million adults.
The current data puts the total number of cases of diabetes in China at 113.9 million.
Worldwide, diabetes affects about 8.3 percent of the global population, or 371 million people.
"China is now among the countries with the highest diabetes prevalence in Asia and has the largest absolute disease burden of diabetes in the world," said the study.
The Chinese survey included more than 98,650 people and was led by Guang Ning, head of the Shanghai Institute of Endocrine and Metabolic Diseases and colleagues with the 2010 China Noncommunicable Disease Surveillance Group.
Diabetes was more common in urban areas and among young and middle aged people who were overweight or obese, and was found to be increasing along with economic development.
The research suggested that one cause for the growing trend could be poor nutrition among pregnant women and young babies, combined with overeating later in life.
Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of the disease, and can be managed with improved nutrition and exercise, as well as medication if needed.
According to an accompanying editorial in JAMA by Juliana Chan of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, "rapid modernization" has fueled an environment that encourages diabetes "characterized by food abundance, physical inactivity, and psychosocial stress."
The CDC says that diabetes is a top cause of blindness, kidney failure and amputations of the legs and feet, and was the seventh leading cause of death in the US in 2007.
One in three US adults will have diabetes by 2050 if current trends continue, according to the CDC.
The disease is characterized by the body's shortage of insulin, or an inability to use the hormone efficiently for converting glucose into energy.