Old footage of military drills misrepresented as 'US Navy stationed in South China Sea'

Following a violent clash between Beijing and Manila in the South China Sea in June 2024, dramatic footage showing a fleet of planes flying over several warships racked up millions of views in posts that falsely claimed it shows US Navy forces patrolling the disputed waterway. But the clips in the footage correspond to old images published by the US military in September 2020. A US military spokesman told AFP they show a military training exercise in the Philippine Sea on the archipelago's east, not the South China Sea.

"US Navy already at the West Philippine Sea, keeping watch," read the Tagalog-language overlaid text on the video using Manila's term for waters to its immediate west.

It includes a hashtag that read "Philippines2024".

The 13-second video clip, which has been viewed than 3.5 million times, shows military cruisers with aircraft flying overhead in formation.

It surfaced on the same day as a violent clash broke out between Chinese and Philippine sailors in the South China Sea on June 17, 2024.

Screenshot of false Facebook reel taken on June 29, 2024

Chinese coast guard personnel wielding knives, sticks and an axe foiled an attempt by the Philippine navy to resupply marines stationed on a derelict warship sitting atop Second Thomas Shoal.

The June 17 clash was the most serious in a number of escalating confrontations, which has fuelled concerns that the dispute could drag in the United States, Manila's mutual defence partner.

The Philippines and China agreed to "de-escalate tensions" over the South China Sea in July, Manila said.

Videos showing the scene were shared elsewhere on Facebook here and here and on YouTube here along with the same false claim.

Some users appeared to believe the clip was filmed after the latest confrontation.

"You praise the US Navy for being at the West Philippine Sea, but how come they weren't able to do anything for the soldier who lost a finger?" one user wrote. 

"Good job, US Navy, please guard the West Philippine Sea," wrote another.

The US Navy -- along with that of the Philippines, Japan and Canada --  conducted maritime exercises on June 16 and 17 in the South China Sea, but the clip is old (archived link).

2020 military exercises

A reverse image search of the keyframe on Google found longer versions of the clip published on Facebook, YouTube and TikTok (archived links here, here, and here).

The clips were published in April 2021. 

Commander Matthew Comer, chief of the US Indo-Pacific Command Public Affairs, confirmed to AFP that the scenes in the false post depicted "Valiant Shield 2020," a series of military exercises that took place in September 2020.

"Yes, imagery in the Facebook post you referenced is from Valiant Shield 2020," he said.

Keyword searches found a picture of the aircraft seen in the false post on the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service (DVIDS), a website affiliated with the US Department of Defense. The aircraft  could be seen flying in the same formation as those in the false video (archived link).

The picture was published on September 25, 2020 with a caption detailing the types of aircraft in the picture.

"Valiant Shield is a U.S. only, biennial field training exercise (FTX) with a focus on integration of joint training in a blue-water environment among U.S. forces," it went on to say.

Below is a screenshot comparison of the false video (left) and a photo of the drills from the DVIDS website (right):

Screenshot comparison of the false post (left) and a photo from the US military (right)

The same aircraft flying by could also be seen in another video published on the website (archived link).

Other pictures from the DVIDS website also showed warships sailing in the same formation as those seen in the false video.

Below is a screenshot comparison of the false post (left) and a photo of the 2020 military exercises (right):

Screenshot comparison of the false post (left) and photos of the drills from the US military (right)

According to the DVIDS website, the exercises were held in the Philippine Sea, which is located on the eastern side of the archipelago and lies opposite of the South China Sea (archived links here and here).

The clip in the false post was earlier falsely shared as aircraft carriers and fighter jets sent to Taiwan in time for the visit of former US house speaker Nancy Pelosi to the self-ruled island in 2022.

AFP has previously debunked misinformation about the South China Sea here, here and here

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