To investigate the association between the Metabolic Score for Visceral Fat (METS-VF) and risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM) and compare the predictive value of the METS-VF for T2DM incidence with other obesity indices in Chinese people. A total of 12 237 non-T2DM participants aged over 18 years from the Rural Chinese Cohort Study of 2007–2008 were included at baseline and followed up during 2013–2014. The cox proportional hazards regression was used to calculate hazard ratios (HR) and 95 % CI for the association between baseline METS-VF and T2DM risk. Restricted cubic splines were used to model the association between METS-VF and T2DM risk. Area under the receiver operating characteristic curve (AUC) analysis was used to evaluate the ability of METS-VF to predict T2DM incidence. During a median follow-up of 6·01 (95 % CI 5·09, 6·06) years, 837 cases developed T2DM. After adjusting for potential confounding factors, the adjusted HR for the highest v. lowest METS-VF quartile was 5·97 (95 % CI 4·28, 8·32), with a per 1-sd increase in METS-VF positively associated with T2DM risk. Positive associations were also found in the sensitivity and subgroup analyses, respectively. A significant nonlinear dose–response association was observed between METS-VF and T2DM risk for all participants (Pnonlinearity = 0·0347). Finally, the AUC value of METS-VF for predicting T2DM was largest among six indices. The METS-VF may be a reliable and applicable predictor of T2DM incidence in Chinese people regardless of sex, age or BMI.