By Ralph Jennings
TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan's stormy relations with China andrecent violence in Tibet are dominating the final hours beforethe island's presidential election on Saturday, as each sideseeks to show it is best qualified to resist Beijing.
Ruling Democratic Progressive Party candidate Frank Hsieh,who has trailed in media polls, has pushed a message that tovote for the more China-friendly Nationalist Party candidate MaYing-jeou could make Taiwan "a second Tibet".
China has claimed self-ruled Taiwan as its territory sincethe end of the Chinese civil war in 1949 and pledged to bringthe island under its rule, by force if necessary. China sentits troops into Tibet, rocked by anti-China rioting last week,in 1950.
"This is a choice between a democratic Taiwan and CommunistChina," DPP newspaper adverts proclaimed on Friday, calling onelectors to "protect Taiwan".
Not to be left out, Ma slammed remarks by Chinese PremierWen Jiabao, who offered peace talks this week, calling Wen'scomments "arrogant, absurd and self-righteous".
Ma was also first to suggest a Beijing Olympic boycott ifviolence in Tibet continued, though he has disputed Hsieh'sclaims that Taiwan could become another Tibet.
"I think they both try to present the image they are toughon China," said Alexander Huang, professor of strategic studiesat Tamkang University in Taiwan. "My hunch is that both sideswill be very tough on China."
Each has graced candlelit vigils alongside robed monks andlocal Tibetans for those believed killed by soldiers or policein Tibetan areas of China since protests began on March 10.
But Ma's party advocates eventual unification with China,while Hsieh's seeks independence. Hsieh's cartoon TVcommercials have lampooned Ma's proposal for a common marketwith China, showing Chinese workers and poisoned food pouringinto Taiwan.
"What Wen Jiabao says and what Ma says are pretty much thesame, right?" Hsieh quipped at a news conference on Thursday."It's that Taiwan is part of China."
In a sign how sensitive the poll is, two U.S. aircraftcarriers have been sent to the Taiwan region for trainingexercises during the election.
China fired missiles into the Taiwan Strait in 1996, tryingto intimidate voters during an election. The United Statesrecognises China, but is Taiwan's biggest ally.
"I hope the aircraft carriers are here to send a message toBeijing that people who want free elections are not threatenedor intimidated by outside forces," visiting U.S. CongressmanDana Rohrabacher told reporters in Taipei.
Russia on Wednesday threw its weight behind ally China,describing Taiwan's plan to hold a referendum on whether toseek UN membership as a "political escapade".
The initiative, which asks whether Taiwan should seek UNmembership as "Taiwan" instead of its formal name, the Republicof China, has also sparked statements of protest from China,Japan, France and the United States. It is a fruitless bid, asChina has a veto on the UN Security Council.
Ma, known for his clean professional image and strongeconomic platform, still leads Hsieh in opinion surveys by 5 to10 percent, analysts say.
"It'll be close, but I don't think Hsieh has done enough towin," said Bruce Jacobs, a professor of Asian studies at MonashUniversity in Australia. "I don't think Tibet can changevotes."
Neither candidate has dropped pledges for regular directflights to China, for a boost in tourism and for an easing ofChina investment rules, plans that are seen as ways to shore upa domestic economy beset by inflation and wage stagnation.
Yet China trade ties have boomed over the past two decades,with Taiwan firms investing up to $100 billion on the otherside.
(Editing by Ben Blanchard and Alex Richardson)