High in the Himalayas, 20 Indian soldiers lie dead, many after a plunge into a freezing river, as well as an unknown number of Chinese counterparts. The body count may yet rise, with troops still missing.
Soldiers from the two neighbors clashed in a desolate valley, according to their peculiar code of conduct. They're not allowed to shoot at each other, and generally don't carry guns to avoid that. But they can brawl, and how. They crack each other's skulls with fists, rocks, iron bars and clubs.
What does the clash mean? It's dangerous for the armies of two nuclear powers to square off. One-third of the world's entire population, 2.7 billion out of the 7.8 million people on the planet, have good reason to feel aggrieved. Both countries are led by strident populists who have been aggressive about asserting their nation's place in the world.
India is keen to play down the incident, knowing that its military forces, and its economy, are outmatched. Both sides, inevitably, blame each other. The incident occurred in the Galwan Valley, on Monday night, in the mountainous snow deserts where India's Ladakh territory meets China-controlled Aksai Chin.
Hundreds of troops on each side have been jockeying along what's called the Line of Actual Control since early May. But a meeting of senior commanders on June 6 seemed to have led to "de-escalation." Tensions surfaced in October when India completed construction of a road to an airfield in Galwan, while Chinese troops have allegedly entered territory patrolled by India.
On Monday night, there was an argument over the position of Chinese soldiers who had been building a new post on the southern bank of the Galwan river, in a "buffer zone" of no-man's land, according to The Indian Express, citing Indian army officer sources.
A spokesman for the Chinese army said that Indian troops crossed the Line of Actual Control "for illegal activities, and deliberately provoked and attacked Chinese forces." The Chinese troops were only defending themselves, the Chinese side says.
Fighting began at dusk, The Guardian reports, when an Indian patrol ran into Chinese forces on a narrow ridge. The Indian commanding officer was pushed into the river gorge, and both sides summoned reinforcements. Around 600 troops fought with stones and iron rods as weapons until roughly midnight, with soldiers from both sides falling to their deaths.
It's likely, analysts say, that the troops on the ground mismanaged a disentanglement that their superiors had agreed. The Chinese troops were reportedly moving out of the area as arranged but turned back. Soldiers from both sides may have been settling scores, following other recent brawls.
The body count tells us something about how the world's biggest democracy operates vs. the world's biggest dictatorship. India initially declared that the colonel in charge and two troopers had died, but the army soon boosted that number. Additional soldiers succumbed overnight to their wounds in freezing temperatures at an altitude of 14,000 feet, and bodies are being fished out of the river.
China has not revealed any casualty count. Its knee-jerk reaction is to clam up, just as it did with Covid-19. The Indian media are sure there are Chinese deaths: The Times of India says "at least 35" Chinese troops were killed or injured, according to U.S. intelligence, while Indian intercepts put that figure at 43 dead or injured.
India and China share a 2,167-mile border, but much of it is inaccessible. In freezing craggy landscapes, any resources are too hard to extract, and even herdsmen are few and far between.
This is the first time any soldiers have died along the contested border since 1975, when four Indian soldiers were killed. The two sides fought a month-long hot war in 1962 including the territory where this incident took place.
At that time, Indian troops intruded into disputed turf, a decade after China had annexed Tibet. They met with a bristly Chinese response, and both sides built up huge troop numbers. China finally attacked on two fronts and drove the Indian soldiers back, inflicting a painful defeat. When the Chinese withdrew, several unofficial lines of control took shape. There were further bloody skirmishes in 1967 that left hundreds dead.
I reported on clashes between Indian and Chinese troops in 2017, when there were fistfights on the Doklam plateau, not far from Mount Everest. China at the time was extending a highway from Tibet into the contested area where India, Bhutan and China meet. After two and a half months of posturing, the two sides stood down.
Now India has been building new roads, airstrips and infrastructure in the border area near Pakistan. China has moved in heavy weapons just in case. Both sides accuse each other of sending troops across the Line of Actual Control.
The Indian media is full of fury over this latest incident, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi has so far only called for an all-part meeting on Friday to discuss the situation. He met with military and defense chiefs on Tuesday but has yet to comment in public.
The Times of India is pushing for sanctions on Chinese imports. "Beijing can't kill our soldiers at the border and expect to benefit from our huge market," the newspaper said in an editorial. Around 80% of the nearly US$90 billion in trade between the two nations consists of Chinese exports into India.
For the markets, the main immediate impact has been on the Indian rupee. The currency has already been underperforming its Asian peers, which have generally rallied strongly against the U.S. dollar since the start of April.
The rupee has lost 0.6% against the U.S. dollar this week, and now stands at 76.23 to the greenback, near the top of its recent 75-77 range. It has dropped 7.8% for the year so far, weakening rapidly in March when Covid concerns went global. The easing of India's lockdown has not produced any rebound in the currency.
Contrast that with the Indonesian rupiah, which has surged 14.2% since the start of April. It also weakened sharply in March but has reclaimed the majority of that lost ground.
Chinese shares were little changed on Wednesday, with the CSI 300 index of the largest mainland stocks closing up 0.1%. India's Sensex had a choppy day where early gains flitted to a loss of 0.3% at the close, partly due to these military tensions.
Unless the fighting intensifies, share-price movements are likely to be driven more by the scope of the Covid-19 outbreaks in each nation. China is contending with a serious outbreak in Beijing, which has reported 137 new cases in the last six days.
The epicenter is the Xinfadi wholesale fruit-and-veg market, the largest in Asia, around 20 times that at the heart of the original coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. Schools and some bars and restaurants have closed in the Chinese capital, and around 65% of flights into and out of Beijing's two airports have been grounded.
India is trying to pull off the double act of gradually easing lockdown restrictions while its case count rises. Wednesday marked the country's highest one-day death count, at 2,003, bringing total fatalities to 11,903 from 354,065 cases.
Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping may do their best to stay above the fray of this recent clash. But both countries will be nursing a grudge, and relations will remain frosty at best. It will be interesting to watch whether consumers on either side of those tall peaks mount any sort of fight themselves.