One of six claimants to archipelagos in the South China Sea, Taiwan has been largely forgotten by the world's media in its coverage of territorial disputes in the resource-rich waters. The disputed islands are spread across 3.5 million square kilometres and include the Spratly, Paracel and Pratas islands, the Macclesfield Bank and the Scarborough Shoal. For decades, these have been claimed, wholly or in part, by Taiwan, mainland China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines. Taiwan's flag flies over two areas in the disputed waters - the Pratas Islands, in the north and the largest of the South China Sea island groups, as well as Taiping (pictured above), which is the biggest in the Spratlys archipelago and includes a supply of fresh water and a runway. Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou's government has remained relatively subdued since tensions in the region flared in March, when mainland China and the Philippines objected to what each saw as the other's intrusion into its territorial waters. Ma's inaction prompted criticism from lawmakers for what they saw as Taiwan's feeble position, but analysts and officials said there was little Taipei could do, other than repeat its claims to sovereignty and call for joint development of the region. Tensions in the South China Sea escalated in May, after Hanoi accused Beijing of 'harassing' a Vietnamese oil exploration ship, prompting Beijing to warn that it had the capacity for military conflict, should it decide to unleash this. In June, Hanoi staged a live-fire drill in the disputed waters, drawing condemnation from Beijing. Washington, which is not keen to see the disputed territory becoming the mainland's backyard, called for restraint by all parties. Amid US pressure, mainland China and other claimants agreed on a 'Declaration of Conduct' during a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in the Indonesian island resort of Bali last month. The declaration was a tentative agreement on regional co-operation in the disputed waters. Despite occupying two of the biggest islets in the region, Taiwan was not invited to the meeting because it does not have diplomatic relations with those countries. Instead, Taiwan's foreign ministry issued a statement on July 22, saying it did not recognise the pact because it was not involved in drafting the agreement and that it had legal claims over the disputed islands. But Taiwan's absence from the Asean meeting drew criticism from the island's pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, with DPP legislator Tsai Huang-liang saying the Ma government 'failed to highlight our sovereignty claim over the region'. Even legislators in the ruling Kuomintang found the Ma government's stand on the issue too soft. 'The government should take stronger action to beef up its defence capability and redeploy marines to Taiping island,' said KMT legislator Lin Yu-fang. He said a stronger military presence there would strengthen the government's stance. Taiwan stationed marines on Taiping until 1999, when it replaced the garrison with a coastguard post in an attempt to reduce tensions. The DPP has also warned the Ma government against co-operating with Beijing over the South China Sea, after Beijing in June called for co-operation on the issue. Despite its policy of rapprochement towards Beijing, the Ma government has remained cautious on the issue, and has declined to co-operate. In a recent visit to the US, Professor Philip Yang, minister in charge of Taiwan's Government Information Office, said Taipei would not negotiate with Beijing on the South China Sea. Taiwan's defence and foreign ministries made similar statements. Analysts said it would be risky for the Ma administration to accept Beijing's proposal and risk its relationship with Washington. 'The Ma government would only risk provoking the US, which does not want to see China's increased presence in the South China Sea,' said Wang Kung-yi, professor of the Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies at Tamkang University in Taipei. 'This explains why Philip Yang was in the US to express the government's stand.' Wang said other claimants in the South China Sea and even Asean as a whole would not want to see co-operation between Taipei and Beijing on the matter. Wang said the Ma administration also would not want the issue to become the subject of attacks by the pro-independence camp ahead of the presidential election in January. Ma, who is seeking a second term, has often been criticised for being too friendly to Beijing. To head off criticism and accusations of inaction, the Ma government last month sent a group of academics to Taiping island, a move that surprised many. After travelling by frigate, the group made a brief stay on the island, a trip later described by Ma as demonstrating Taiwan's 'three kinds of power' in the South China Sea - 'hard power, soft power and smart power'. One analyst said that, given Taiwan's diplomatic isolation, it could do little else. 'By sending the academics to Taiping, it not only allowed the international community to be aware of Taiwan's claim over the disputed islands, but also allowed the public to see the government efforts to safeguard our territory,' said Song Yann-huei, a Taipei-based expert on South China Sea issues.