The 14-time grand slam champion, playing competitively for the first time since Wimbledon, recorded a convincing 6-4 6-0 first-round triumph at the ATP 500 event in Beijing.
Nadal, losing finalist at the hard-court event in 2013, did not appear affected by his lengthy absence as he won 73 per cent of his first-serve points in a dominant display.
Gasquet, in contrast, struggled to find his rhythm and was undone by a single break in the opening set, spurning three break-point opportunities of his own.
It was in the second set that the second seed was able to capitalise on his opponent's inconsistencies as Gasquet landed just 35 per cent of his first serves.
With his pinpoint returning accuracy, Nadal seized his chance to rack up six consecutive games and book a meeting with qualifier Peter Gojowczyk.
The German was a surprise 6-4 2-6 -7-5 winner over the big-serving Ivo Karlovic.
Reigning champion Novak Djokovic, aiming for a fifth China Open title, eased past Guillermo Garcia-Lopez 6-2 6-1 to sound an ominous warning to the rest of the field.
The outcome was not as clear-cut as the score suggests, however, with both men creating six chances to break but the world number one proving the more clinical.
Sixth seed Andy Murray, who ended his long wait for a title with victory at the Shenzhen Open last week, continued his promising form with a 6-7 (9-11) 6-4 6-2 success against Jerzy Janowicz.
Elsewhere in the draw, Tomas Berdych beat Feliciano Lopez 6-1 6-2, America's John Isner overcame Santiago Giraldo 6-1 6-3, Tommy Robredo - the losing finalist against Murray on Sunday - was a 3-6 7-6 (7-4) 6-2 winner against Italian Andreas Seppi, while Pablo Andujar prevailed 6-4 6-1 versus Julien Benneteau.
Pablo Cuevas won 7-6 (7-3) 3-6 6-4 against Mikhail Kukushkin, Leonardo Mayer lost 7-6 (7-2) 6-7 (3-7) 6-4 to Slovakia's Martin Klizan, and seventh seed Ernests Gulbis beat Fabio Fognini 6-3 6-4.