By Ralph Jennings
TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan went to the polls on Saturday toelect a president who could usher in a new era in relationswith political rival China in one of the hottest potentialflashpoints in Asia.
Taiwan's more than 17 million voters will choose asuccessor to President Chen Shui-bian, an anti-China firebrandwho steps down in May and who has repeatedly angered Beijingwith his pro-independence rhetoric.
China has claimed self-ruled Taiwan as its territory sincethe end of the Chinese civil war in 1949 when defeatedNationalist forces fled to the island and has pledged to bringit under its rule, by force if necessary.
Frank Hsieh's ruling Democratic Progressive Party favoursformal independence while Nationalist Party candidate MaYing-jeou, who leads in opinion polls, wants eventualreunification once China embraces democracy.
The polls close at 8 a.m. British time and a result isexpected a few hours later.
The election has drawn keen international attention, withthe United States, Russia, Britain, Japan and China expressingdisapproval of a referendum on U.N. membership, to be heldalongside the vote.
Two U.S. aircraft carriers are in the region for trainingexercises. China fired missiles into the Taiwan Strait in 1996,trying to intimidate voters during an election.
The United States switched diplomatic recognition fromTaiwan to China in 1979, recognising "one China", but remainsthe island's biggest ally.
"China hopes the United States and Japan will carry outtheir promises of not supporting 'Taiwan independence' orTaiwan authority's proposed 'referendum on UN membership',"Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said in an interview withRussia's Interfax news agency.
However, Taiwan's faltering economy appears to be the topissue with voters.
"Domestic issues, such as the economy and corruption, arebigger than China or foreign policy," said Ralph Cossa,president of the U.S.-based think tank Pacific Forum CSIS.
"But from the U.S. perspective, it's a probably win-winsince neither candidate seems as likely as the currentadministration to deliberately antagonise Beijing."
The two candidates have toughened their stances on Chinafollowing Beijing's crackdown in Tibet, but to help thedomestic economy, both advocate more direct flights, tourismand investment opportunities between Taiwan and China.
Ma advocates a common market with China.
"I'd like to see us become the Switzerland of the east, notthe Cuba of the east," he told a campaign rally late on Friday.
Hsieh says that could cause Taiwan to be flooded by Chineselabourers and shoddy products, and the island may end upsuffering the same fate as Tibet.
"When you look at Tibet, do you feel scared or not?"Hsieh's vice-presidential candidate, Su Tseng-chang, yelled tosupporters on Friday.
On the campaign trail, both camps have marshalled tens ofthousands of people at noisy rallies up and down the island.
Both have trotted out groups of attractive young women toget attention and have run television commercials that play onvoter fears such as China or a government fractured bybickering.
Yet voters are smarter, more practical and more fatiguedthan ever by politicking, analysts say.
"We know that people have already made up their minds,"said Lin Jih-wen, a research fellow at Academia Sinica inTaipei.
(Additional reporting by Roger Tung; Editing by NickMacfie)