By Faith Hung and Yimou Lee
TAIPEI/YILAN, Taiwan (Reuters) - Taiwan looks set on Saturday to elect an independence-leaning opposition leader as its first woman president who could usher in a new round of uncertainty with China, the massive neighbor that claims the self-ruled island as its sacred territory.
Tsai Ing-wen, leader of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), is expected to be thrust into one of Asia's toughest and most dangerous jobs, with China pointing hundreds of missiles at the island, decades after losing Nationalists (KMT) fled from Mao Zedong's Communists to Taiwan in the Chinese civil war.
She will have to balance the superpower interests of China, which is also Taiwan's largest trading partner, and the United States with those of her freewheeling, democratic home.
Tsai risks antagonizing China if she attempts to forcefully assert Taiwan's sovereignty and reverses eight years of warming China ties under incumbent China-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou of the Nationalists, who ruled all of China until the retreat to Taiwan in 1949.
"I had a good sleep last night. We've done the best we could. We're leaving today to the hands of the voters," Tsai told reporters after she cast her vote early at a ballot station near her home on the outskirts of the capital Taipei.
The election comes at a tricky time for Taiwan's export-dependent economy, which slipped into recession in the third quarter last year. China is also Taiwan's top trading partner and Taiwan's favorite investment destination.
"During the past years under the Ma Ying-jeou administration, Taiwan's economy didn't get better but deteriorated instead. People think he has been getting too close to China," said Deng Chia-ling, 40, a housewife.
"My entire family supports Tsai Ing-wen. We have high hopes she will lead Taiwan going forward."
Support for the DPP has swelled since 2014, when hundreds of students occupied Taiwan's parliament for weeks in protests against trade pacts negotiated with China in the largest display of anti-China sentiment the island had seen in years.
"I'm not afraid of China. We are a democratic country, and it's China who should learn from us," said a 70-year-old farmer who only gave his surname Chen, queuing at a voting station in rural Yilan, a county east of the capital.
"This election is vital to us as we need to maintain our sovereignty. The new president would take us one step forward."
The election results should start coming out after 6 pm local time.
FIRST WOMAN PRESIDENT FOR TAIWAN
Tsai has the tide of history against her. Ma and predecessors, including firebrand Lee Teng-hui and convicted opposition DPP president Chen Shui-bian, all failed to bring about a lasting reconciliation with China, which considers Taiwan a rogue province to be taken by force if necessary.
Shots were traded between the two sides as recently as the mid-1970s.
At stake are relations with an ascendant and increasingly assertive China under President Xi Jinping.
Tsai, a lawyer, would be one of the most prominent female leaders of the Chinese-speaking world since the Qing dynasty Empress Dowager Cixi. Parliamentary polls are also being held and if the DPP wins those too, Tsai will get an even stronger mandate.
She has been ambiguous on her China policy, merely pledging, in public anyway, to maintain the status quo.
Beijing has warned repeatedly that hard-earned peace across the Taiwan Strait could be affected by a Tsai win.
The United States has expressed concerns about the danger of worsening China-Taiwan ties, at a time when China's navy is increasingly flexing its muscles in the South China and East China Seas and expanding territorial claims.
China has held out the "one country, two systems" formula, under which the British colony of Hong Kong returned to China in 1997, as a solution for Taiwan. But both the Nationalists and DPP have rejected the idea.
(This version of the story has been refiled to fix spelling in tenth paragraph)
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie & Kim Coghill)