A China Unicom executive has confirmed that, as long as regulatory approval comes as expected, Apple’s new iPhone 5 will arrive on the carrier’s network within three months of the handset’s September 21st launch.

The company’s vice president Li Gang told Sohu IT that it had already reached an agreement with Apple and is waiting for approval for China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and the Radio Authority.

“If [approval] goes smoothly, China Unicom will release the iPhone in China within three months,” he said (translation mine).

The official confirmation comes after insiders within the company had claimed that Apple’s next iPhone would arrive by the end of this year. The release could represent a positive change for both Apple and China Unicom, as previous iPhone releases took at least three months to arrive.

Li led the team that negotiated China Unicom’s first contract with Apple in 2009, and he also flew to the US this summer to hammer out a new agreement with the iPhone maker. Earlier this year, he said that the partnership has produced “better-than-expected results“.

Those results are particularly evident in the operator’s 3G subscriber figures. China Unicom recently revealed that it had passed the 60 million user mark for its 3G services. The second-place carrier is nipping at the heels of China Mobile, which has a massive lead in terms of overall subscribers, but has lagged on 3G adoption.

China Mobile employees claimed earlier this month that the world’s largest carrier wasn’t going to begin selling the iPhone this year. Based on the current technical specifications of the iPhone 5, it’s highly unlikely this particular model will come to China Mobile, since it doesn’t have support for either the company’s proprietary 3G service or its upcoming LTE network. China Mobile has blamed issues with Qualcomm’s baseband chips for the delay.

Meanwhile, China Telecom, which got the iPhone 4S in March, has said that it will get the iPhone 5 not much later than rival Unicom.

While it’s certainly possible that Apple could release an iPhone tailored specifically to work on China Mobile, but the move would represent a departure from the Cupertino, California company’s usual M.O. It is worth noting, though that the iPhone 5 is not currently compatible with several LTE frequency bands that are used across Europe and in emerging markets, so it appears that Apple will need additional models in order for its customers to enjoy the fastest speeds in their home countries.

Apple introduced the iPhone 5 earlier this week at a media event. The new handset features a 4-inch screen, an upgraded A6 processor and LTE connectivity. Pre-orders for the device, which launches in 9 countries, including Hong Kong, on September 21st, begin this Friday at 12:01am PST/3am EST. Grey-market resellers are expected to purchase iPhone 5 units in Hong Kong and ship them across the border in order to meet early adopter demand in mainland China prior to the official China Unicom release.

The iPhone 5 launch will be the fastest international handset rollout to date for Apple. The company plans to make the smartphone available in 100 countries across 240 carriers by the end of this year.

Header image: John Bradley/Wired