It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of today's voting in Taiwan, without doubt the freest and most important election ever held on Chinese soil. The outcome and its aftermath will help shape issues crucial to Asia and the world beyond: war or peace in the Taiwan Strait, economic prospects for the region, global trade patterns and the political futures of both the mainland and Taiwan itself, to list a few. And it is all but impossible to be confident about who will win or how these vital issues will be affected by the result. The one certainty is uncertainty. To start with, there is the election itself, which finds three main candidates vying to become president. The winner will succeed Lee Teng-hui, the elderly chief executive who introduced a democratic system which could see his own ruling Kuomintang (KMT) ushered from office for the first time - the last goal he had in mind. Important act Mr Lee's final important act was to decree that future talks with Beijing should be conducted on a 'special state-to-state basis', something vehemently rejected by Chinese leaders who consider Taiwan no more than a renegade province. There are substantial differences among the three contenders, but they all have put some distance between themselves and Mr Lee's two-states proposal. That is because Beijing threatens war if Taiwan declares independence and tries to escape from under the 'one-China' political umbrella which has sheltered both sides for years. In particular, Beijing hopes to frighten the 15.5 million Taiwanese electors into rejecting Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party, which advocates independence with varying degrees of fervour. Voters should 'not just act on impulse . . . otherwise, they will have no opportunity to regret,' Premier Zhu Rongji warned last Wednesday. But Mr Chen is a slight favourite in his race against the KMT party choice, Vice-President Lien Chan, and an ambitious former party man, James Soong Chu-yu, who defected to stand alone. Both are tainted by corruption charges, and many Taiwanese are fed up with a 'black money' alliance of KMT officials, bribe-paying businessmen and even gangsters, which plays a major economic role. The corruption issue may tip the election Mr Chen's way, especially as 40 per cent or less of a split vote could be enough to win. Key questions would then arise: how will Beijing interpret the result, and how will it react? From Beijing, Taiwan must appear to be drifting ever further from the motherland's control. Its economic and political systems are increasingly different, and fewer and fewer of its people have direct family connections to or memories of the mainland. But the elderly men who control the Chinese Communist Party call unification their holy mission, and grow frustrated as Taiwan shows decreasing interest in sharing it. President Jiang Zemin, in particular, wants major progress on unity as part of his political legacy. Thus he and his colleagues may well interpret a Chen victory as an anti-China gesture rather than, in substantial part, as a vote in favour of sound character and against corruption. This could bring a dangerous escalation of rhetorical threats, even if actual fighting remains unlikely. Hawkish party and army leaders are pushing the tough line on others; Premier Zhu's harsh remarks seemed out of character. Renewed war talk would have many adverse consequences. It would make governing more difficult for any Taiwanese president, especially for Mr Chen who would lead a minority government. It would complicate Beijing's foreign relations, notably with the US where Congress threatens to vote against equal trading rights for China and for increased military aid to Taiwan - two things Beijing fervently hopes to prevent. That could divert attention from reform, jeopardising the authority of Premier Zhu and his allies. And new war threats could shatter economic confidence around the region, starting in financial markets. Moderate words Beijing cannot control the election result; if anything, its bluster has driven voters Mr Chen's way. But it can influence the consequences, no matter who wins. The wisest course would be for its leaders to take a deep breath once results are known, and to think hard before they speak. This is more than a single-issue campaign and Beijing should react accordingly. A few moderate words from China, without renouncing long-term goals, would work wonders for Asian stability. But more threats of war could bring economic harm to the entire region, starting with China itself.