The history of the disputed Paracel and Spratly Islands in the period 1930–56 will be analysed here within a context of regional political and strategic developments. The focus will be on how French and British authorities estimated the economic and strategic value of the two island groups in various periods. The Paracels and Spratlys are studied the way one would examine the pawns in a game of chess. In themselves they are unimportant, but in certain situations they gain significance, and mediocre players may pay inordinate attention to their protection. There is also the faint possibility that a pawn can be changed into a queen, for instance if oil is discovered. In order to understand the constellations that push simple pawns into the limelight, they must be seen in relation to the general balance of forces on the chessboard, and the strategies of all players.