Small and occupied largely by seabirds, goats and a unique indigenous species of mole, the islands named Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China have long been largely ignored.
But as rising powers face off against each other in a battle not just for influence but also vital resources, such disputed islets, reefs, and areas of seabed are swiftly growing in importance; and not just in Asia.
From the melting and resource-rich Arctic to the eastern Mediterranean, the South Atlantic to the East China Sea, legal wrangling, diplomatic posturing and military sabre rattling are all on the rise.
The current row between Beijing and Tokyo over five islets and three rocks seems one of the riskiest so far, putting two of Asia's most powerful states at loggerheads – although most experts believe talk of outright war is overstated for now.
Some of these lines have always been disputed, says Admiral Gary Roughead, a former U.S. Pacific Fleet commander who retired as Navy Chief of Operations last year and is now Annenberg distinguished fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institute.
But the resource issue is giving them much greater edge. You have energy reserves, you have fish stocks - which are particularly essential to the Asian diet and which I think we too often ignore - and increasingly you are going to have interest in undersea minerals and rare earths.
What began as a purely diplomatic row when Japan's government bought land on the islands from their private owner has escalated to so far bloodless confrontations between patrol boats and fishing craft. Last week, Taiwan - which also claims the islands and with them hundreds of square sea miles believed to contain considerable gas and oil - entered the fray as its own patrol craft and fishing boats entered the waters.
These disputes are definitely coming back into fashion, says Eric Thompson, head of strategic studies at the Centre for Naval Analyses, which provides analysis to the U.S. Navy and Pentagon amongst other clients as part of larger US-government funded think tank CNA.
You have profound geopolitical shifts... that are making certain states much more politically, economically and militarily more assertive. Then, you have new technologies that are putting resources within reach that would have been either unknown or impossible to access only a few years ago.
Not all states resort to direct action. Later this year, Chile and Peru will go