The ambush set up by Chinese soldiers for an Indian patrol was medieval. In the high-altitude Himalayan no man’s land claimed by both countries, their forces have agreed not to carry guns, to diminish the chance of the long-running territorial dispute flaring into open war.
So the People’s Liberation Army had dammed up mountain streams, which they unblocked as the Indian troops approached. The rush of water knocked many off their feet, and then the Chinese soldiers swept down, brandishing sticks encrusted with nails, Indian media reported.
The units fought hand to hand for hours; several Indians tumbled down the mountain to their death. When the battle was over, at least 20 Indian soldiers were dead, dozens more injured and several taken captive. China had losses too, although it has not revealed figures.
A fragile consensus that had held for nearly half a century was also killed off. Before last week’s battle, no soldier from either side had died in a border skirmish for 45 years.
China and India fought a war over the border in 1962, and clashed again in 1967, but both seemed keen to avoid incidents that could spiral towards another.
Then there was Monday’s ambush, which left two nuclear-armed nationalist strongmen – Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and Chinese president Xi Jinping – facing off over the bodies of their troops. It was a potentially explosive situation. Neither man’s politics allows much room to look weak on issues of national sovereignty and territorial control.
On Saturday, China accused India of “deliberate provocation”, and criticised its construction of infrastructure in the area. But India’s construction has been well inside the territory it controls.
The mountainside battle came after a steady build-up of Chinese forces and infrastructure, and an increase in reported patrols, around the line of actual control (LAC), the de facto border – an area that commanders know carries risks of escalation.
“This appears to be a far more concerted push on China’s part to change the status quo,” said Andrew Small, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund. He cautioned that information about the border areas was fragmentary, and mostly from Indian sources supplemented by satellite images, but said there was a clear picture of a growing Chinese presence.
“The Chinese military has been hardening its position in multiple locations, not simply conducting patrols across the LAC but building infrastructure and maintaining an ongoing presence.”
It also seems improbable that commanders on a contested frontier, where there had been serious brawls a month earlier, would plan such a deadly ambush without at least tacit approval from the highest levels.
Yet it is not an obvious time for Beijing to be stirring up trouble with its neighbour; the country is battling several crises. Its economy has been shattered by coronavirus. Relations with the United States are at one of their lowest points since diplomatic ties were re-established in the 1970s. Hong Kong is in revolt and Beijing’s imposition of a security law there has provoked international outrage.
Chinese authorities have also launched a trade war with Australia over its demands for an investigation into the origins of Covid-19, and are in a stand-off with Canada over the extradition of a senior executive from the technology giant Huawei.
Some analysts believe that aggression on the Indian border is a response to these domestic pressures, from a leader who has fumbled the economy and relations with a top trading partner desperate not to look weak on national sovereignty.
“I feel it’s generally a response to the pressure Xi feels he is under,” said Taylor Fravel, director of the security studies programme at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“Because of Covid and the criticism China faced internationally, the economic crisis at home, and the concomitant deterioration of China-US relations, [Beijing] has taken a tough stance on a number of sovereignty issues as a way of signalling that China will not be cowed.”
Others see a more opportunistic aggression from a government which over the past decade has replaced a focus on economic priorities and global stability in its foreign policy with aggressive nationalism.
Forced to choose between acceptance and escalation, no country has wanted to take on China. Comments from Modi on Friday suggested that he too was willing to pay a political price to avoid further escalation.
He said in a televised statement that Chinese troops had not intruded across the country’s borders, even though that directly contradicted his own foreign minister’s previous position.
“From the Chinese point of view, why not push forward?” said June Teufel Dreyer, professor of political science at the University of Miami. China’s economy is five times the size of India’s, and its official defence budget $100bn (£80bn) higher; the real difference is probably larger, she pointed out.
But while protests in India’s streets and threats to boycott Chinese goods are unlikely to have a major economic impact, and there is little threat of military action, Beijing may have underestimated the damage caused by this skirmish.
“One of the things this crisis has taught us is that the Chinese understanding of India is quite poor and is often coloured by cognitive biases of all kinds,” said Ashley Tellis, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and former senior adviser to the US state department.
The deaths, and the end of the tacit agreement to avoid fatalities, are likely to harden attitudes towards China, both in the general population and among politicians. And that could have long-term fallouts, both economically and diplomatically.
“I suspect China has lost another generation, in India, many of whom had seen China as an opportunity. Basically, now they will say we can’t trust them,” said Tanvi Madan, director of the India project at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“Even if there was already an internal debate, this has strengthened the hands of those who have called for a rethinking,” she said. “One thing this will put an end to is the idea that economic interdependence is going to alleviate political strains.”