By Kelvin Soh
BEIJING (Reuters) - China Unicom, the country's second-largest mobile carrier, expects to begin selling Apple Inc's latest iPhones this year and has set an ambitious target of having 100 million 3G users by end-2012 as it tries to attract high-end users to lift profits.
"The iPhone 5 is currently being tested by the authorities, and we'll begin selling it once it has been approved," China Unicom chairman Chang Xiaobing told a news conference.
China Unicom (Hong Kong) Ltd was the first Chinese mobile operator to carry iPhones in 2009, but lost its exclusivity when China Telecom Corp Ltd signed a similar contract with Apple this year.
Helped by iPhones, China Unicom has seen its number of 3G users rise steadily, reaching 66.9 million in the first nine months, representing about 30 percent of total subscribers, company data showed.
Chang said the carrier, which sold 33 million smartphones through its network so far this year, aimed to have 100 million 3G users this year, which will be a huge jump from the current figure.
The country's three carriers -- China Mobile Ltd, China Unicom and China Telecom -- have been trying to upgrade their mobile networks to boost data usage among increasingly tech-savvy Chinese consumers.
China Mobile, whose 3G technology lags its two rivals', has been building its 4G network and conducting trials. Industry observers expect China to only start giving out 4G licenses in late 2013 and 2014.
"China will eventually have a 4G mobile network; the only question is when. Whether China chooses to build it sooner or later, I believe the decision made will be the correct one," Chang said.
China Unicom's shares traded down 1.3 percent, lagging China Mobile, China Telecom and the main Hang Seng Index.
(Editing by Jacqueline Wong and Muralikumar Anantharaman)