Seventeen million eligible voters go to the polls in Taiwan Saturday to choose a new president for the island. Taiwanese also will cast ballots on a referendum asking whether the island should pursue U.N. membership under its own name, a move that could provoke China's anger. VOA's Stephanie Ho reports from Beijing.

The two candidates in the Taiwan election are Ma Ying-jeou, with the Nationalist Party and Frank Hsieh, with the Democratic Progressive Party.

Ma is the frontrunner, although Hsieh has been successfully narrowing the gap in recent days.

One of the top issues on the agenda is Taiwan's relations with China.

The Nationalists fled to Taiwan in 1949, after losing a civil war to the Chinese communists. Although Taiwan has been separately governed for more than five decades, Beijing considers the island part of the Chinese nation. China has vowed to use force, if necessary, to prevent it from declaring independence.

Both candidates vow to pursue better relations with Beijing. Incumbent president Chen Shui-bian was widely seen as pushing the island toward independence, and Beijing refused to talk to him during his eight years in office.

The issue of Taiwan-China relations is underscored by a referendum Taiwan voters can also vote on, calling for the island to seek to join the United Nations, under its own name.

Dali Yang, who heads the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore, says the main danger is if the referendum passes.

"The mainland (China) would consider that, if not outright, but certainly very akin, very close to Taiwan declaring its independence. So, in that sense it could have serious consequences, actually," he said.

China's official Xinhua news agency has carried near daily reports of governments in many other countries condemning the referendum. The broad range of critical countries includes the United States, Japan and Russia, but also Bulgaria, Latvia and Cambodia.

Dali Yang points out that Washington, especially, is watching the Taiwan election closely.

"Well, certainly the U.S. has been very interested in the outcome of this election, and certainly has also has expressed publicly its concern about the referendum in particular," he said.

Two U.S. aircraft carriers are in the waters near Taiwan. Yang says he does not know if that is deliberately planned to coincide with the elections or whether it is just a routine voyage.

Meanwhile, back in Taiwan, voter turnout is expected to be high.