Grim details of the clash that left at least 20 Indian soldiers dead near the Chinese border have begun trickling out, revealing that soldiers used batons wrapped in barbed wire during the high-altitude brawl.
Indian media reported on Wednesday that the battle was fought in darkness on a narrow mountain ridge above the Galwan Valley — more than 14,000 feet above sea level — after Indian troops tried to verify that Chinese soldiers had honoured a pledge to pull back from a strategic position.
Scuffles broke out and in the violent melee, which involved fists and the use of improvised weapons such as the wire-wrapped batons, some Indian soldiers fell from the ridge into the deep ravine, where the Galwan river was in full spate, according to Indian media.
While Beijing has not confirmed any details, Indian media reported that the People’s Liberation Army also suffered casualties.
Before Monday’s fight erupted, the two sides had been discussing a mutual disengagement from a weeks-long stand-off at multiple points along the disputed 3,488km border.
Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, has made no public comment on the latest dispute on the Sino-Indian border, which has simmered since the nuclear-armed neighbours fought a war in 1962.
China’s initial reaction to the confrontation was restrained on Wednesday morning. State media downplayed the news, running only a brief military statement from the previous night confirming that there had been casualties but not providing further details.
As of midday on Wednesday there was no significant police presence outside India’s embassy in Beijing and Chinese social media reaction remained muted.
However, the editor of a nationalist tabloid mocked India’s military on Twitter, after reports suggested most of its fatalities had resulted from exposure to sub zero temperatures rather than injuries from the fight.
“Lack of [timely] rescue reflects the serious flaws of [the] Indian army,” said Hu Xijin at the Global Times. “This is not an army with real modern combat capabilities at [altitude]. Indian public opinion needs to stay sober.”
But Indian public anger towards China was mounting on Wednesday with protests outside China’s embassy in New Delhi, while Twitter reverberated with Indian calls for a boycott of Chinese goods.
“Boycotting China and all Chinese goods must be a national imperative for EVERY Indian. This is a battle that MUST be decisively won in the marketplace and not just resolved on the border,” tweeted Reshmi Dasgupta, a prominent journalist.
Bilahari Kausikan, a former Singapore diplomat, said such nationalist sentiments could make it difficult for Mr Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping to rein in tempers.
“Both Modi and Xi have used nationalist narratives so even if they want to de-escalate, public sentiment could make that difficult,” said Mr Kausikan, who is now at the National University of Singapore.
“Neither of them is looking for more trouble, but it will depend on whether they can contain social media reaction.”
Since taking power in 2014, Mr Modi has tried to forge an amicable working relationship with Mr Xi. But some analysts said Beijing has been irked by New Delhi’s warm ties with US president Donald Trump.
On Wednesday, Indian troops were on high alert after the first deadly skirmish between Indian and Chinese troops since 1975.
But Wang Dehua, a south Asia expert at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, said Beijing was not looking for a fight.
“China’s principle is, if we are invaded we will hit back and our military is stronger than India’s,” he said. “But China doesn’t want a war.”
Additional reporting by Xinning Liu in Beijing