By Ralph Jennings
TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan was voting on Saturday to elect apresident who could usher in a new era in relations withpolitical 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 and has pledged tobring it under its rule, by force if necessary.
Frank Hsieh's ruling Democratic Progressive Party favoursformal independence while Ma Ying-jeou's Nationalist Party(KMT) wants eventual reunification once China embracesdemocracy.
"Whether you vote for Hsieh or for Ma, be sure to vote forTaiwan," Chen told reporters. "...Don't let Taiwan become thenext Hong Kong. Don't let Taiwan become the next Tibet."
The former British colony of Hong Kong returned to Chineserule in 1997. Chinese troops marched into Tibet, the scene ofanti-Chinese rioting last week, in 1950.
Ma told reporters after voting his commitment to Taiwan wasnot in doubt.
"I have always said that if I get elected I will engagewith mainland China on many issues, that I will protect Taiwan,not just its identity but its security, to my fulleststrength," he said in fluent English.
"I have said also many times that Taiwan is not Tibet.Neither is it Hong Kong. So we will keep this democraticcountry running as it is."
The polls close at 8:00 a.m. British time and a result isexpected a few hours later.
The election has drawn keen international attention, withthe United States, Russia and Britain criticising a referendumon U.N. membership, to be held alongside the vote, which theybelieve could upset the delicate balance with China.
Malaysia added its voice of opposition on Saturday, withits Foreign Ministry saying the referendum as "a provocativemove".
Whatever the referendum result, U.N. membership is out ofthe question with just 23 countries recognising Taiwan, andwith China a veto-wielding permanent member of the U.N.Security Council.
The United States switched diplomatic recognition fromTaiwan to China in 1979, recognising "one China", but remainsthe island's biggest ally.
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.
"China hopes the United States and Japan will carry outtheir promises of not supporting 'Taiwan independence' orTaiwan authority's proposed 'referendum on U.N. membership',"Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said.
In Taiwan, a faltering economy is a priority 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.
The two candidates have toughened their stances on Chinafollowing Beijing's crackdown in Tibet, but to help theeconomy, both advocate more direct flights, tourism andinvestment opportunities between Taiwan and China.
Ma advocates a common market with China.
Yet voters are smarter, more practical and more fatiguedthan ever by politicking, analysts say.
"For me, the key topic is economic improvement," saidTaiwan voter Mei Yi-ying, 60. "Most of us at our age want towork."
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard, and Jalil Hamid inKuala Lumpur; Editing by Nick Macfie)