Paracel Islands (päräsĕlˈ) [key], Chin. Xisha, group of low coral islands and reefs in the South China Sea, c.175 mi (280 km) SE of Hainan island. They are rich in guano and are underlain by oil deposits. Prior to World War II the islands were part of French Indochina and served as a weather station. During the war they were occupied by Japan but passed to China and French Indochina (later South Vietnam) in the postwar years. The South Vietnamese maintained a weather station and small garrison there until 1974, when they were attacked and driven from the islands by Chinese armed forces; China administers the islands as part of Hainan prov. Chinese ownership of the archipelago is contested by Vietnam and Taiwan.