They are mostly just tiny specks of uninhabited rock spread out over 772,000 miles of the South China Sea.
They bear the names given to them by European cartographers, Spratly, Paracel, and Scarborough Shoal, although the neighboring Asian countries all have their own names for them. They are the most hotly contested islands on earth, and this summer the international heat has been rising with potential problems for the United States.
The respected International Crisis Group has warned that armed conflict over these islands and shoals is ever more likely and, indeed, has happened before.
In January 1974, I watched as the shell-holed ships of the South Vietnamese navy crept back to the port of Danang after an encounter with the Chinese navy in the Paracels. The Saigon government had sent a small detachment of troops to the islands, to which the Chinese reacted violently, sinking South Vietnamese ships and damaging others.
As Saigon was falling in the spring of 1975, hardly anyone noticed that Hanoi sent warships out to the Paracels to plant a Viet Cong flag, thereby sticking a finger in the eye of Hanoi's great benefactor, China.
Few atolls are as widely contested as the Spratlys, claimed by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and possibly Taiwan. Recently China, which insists on sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, has reinforced its military garrisons and declared a new prefecture called Sansha, which has a mayor and 45 deputies to the People's Congress, and claims jurisdiction over the Spratlys, the Paracels and the Macclesfield Bank.
Vietnam recently passed a law that asserted its sovereignty over both the Paracels and the Spratlys, basing its claim on French administration of the islands dating from 1933 when Vietnam was a French colony.
Not to be left out, the Philippines stepped up its claim on the Scarborough Shoal, also claimed by China, saying that hundreds of new ships and planes would be purchased to defend Manila's claim.
Nobody cared much about these scattered islands and rocks until it appeared that oil and gas might be in the offing, and now national pride has been engaged.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino said that his country would not back down to Chinese threats.
'If someone entered your yard and told you he owned it, would you agree?' he asked.