If the reefs in the South China Sea had a consciousness of their own, they'd probably be pretty flattered by all the attention international experts in maritime law are paying to them now.
When is a reef just a reef? Is a reef still a reef, if somebody comes along, dredges up tons of coral and sand, and starts layering the stuff on top of it? What if it doesn't stop at just reclamation? What if they lay air-strips, carve out ports? Is it still a reef? Or is it an island now?
What should be a existential issue left to the reefs themselves has become a set of legal questions with answers that could have huge implications for international relations.
That's because these questions form the basis of the Philippines' legal challenge to China's claim over almost all of the South China Sea.
It's clever, even cheeky, on the part of Manila, which asked The Hague to clarify whether submerged or partially-submerged physical features in the South China Sea can be claimed by any country.
Under the UN's Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), submerged or partially-submerged features (and which can't support human life) cannot be claimed by any country, which is entirely entirely reasonable. Why would any country want to claim ownership or sovereignty over rocks poking out of the sea that serve no useful human purpose?
So, Manila's asking The Hague to confirm that UNCLOS definition, by asking, "Are you sure that, legally, this definition is right?".