There is an understanding between the nuclear-armed neighbours that despite their decades-old failure to demarcate their huge border, their troops in the disputed and inhospitable region will not use firearms.

Supporters of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hold placards to protest against China while paying tributes to the Indian army soldiers killed in a border clash with Chinese troops in Ladakh region, at India Gate, in New Delhi, India, on June 17, 2020.
Supporters of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hold placards to protest against China while paying tributes to the Indian army soldiers killed in a border clash with Chinese troops in Ladakh region, at India Gate, in New Delhi, India, on June 17, 2020. (Reuters)

India and China sought on Wednesday to de-escalate tensions after flexing their muscles in a fatal clash along a disputed border high in the Himalayas that left 20 Indian soldiers dead.

The skirmish on Monday in the desolate alpine area of Ladakh, in India-administered Kashmir, followed changes by India to the political status of the region amid a geopolitical tug-of-war with the United States in the region.

Chinese officials said on Wednesday that both sides had agreed to peacefully resolve their Himalayan border tension through dialogue. 

India should “not take unilateral actions that might complicate the situation," said the Foreign Ministry in Beijing.

'India wants peace'

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a speech on Wednesday that “India wants peace but is capable of giving a befitting reply.” He has called a meeting of India’s major political parties on Friday to discuss the China situation.

At least 20 Indian soldiers, including a colonel, died of severe injuries suffered in sub-zero temperatures, Indian officials said, after the two sides threw rocks and traded blows in the culmination of a months-long standoff in the Galwan Valley near the Line of Actual Control that separates the two countries.

READ MORE: Chinese and Indian troops clashed in Himalayas valley. Here's why:

Fists, stones, and clubs

India and China's militaries have some of the world's most sophisticated modern weaponry, but their deadliest scrap in over 50 years was fought using fists, rocks wrapped in barbed wire, and clubs studded with nails.

There is an understanding between the nuclear-armed neighbours that despite their decades-old failure to demarcate their huge border, their troops in the disputed and inhospitable region will not use firearms.

Indian media claim that 43 Chinese were also killed or seriously hurt – Beijing is yet to give casualty numbers – making it the deadliest encounter since 1967 and the first deaths in fighting since 1975.

But unlike then, this time no shot was fired, with the victims bludgeoned with crude hand-made weapons, hit by stones or punched and shoved off a ridge onto rocks and an icy river below, reports and sources indicate.

Post-mortems so far showed that the "primary reason for death is drowning and it looks like they fell from a height into the water because of head injuries," said one Indian official.

The NDTV and Network 18 TV channels reported that 16 of the Indian soldiers were killed with blunt objects and four fell into the river.

READ MORE: Beijing calls for de-escalation as Modi plans huddle on soldier deaths

'A cold desert'

Colonel S Dinny, who until 2017 commanded an Indian battalion in the region, said that the terrain is "extremely treacherous," with troops having to climb as high as 5,200 metres.

"It's a cold desert," he said. "It takes a toll on the body and mind. The oxygen level is only 60 percent of what is available in cities like Delhi, Mumbai."

And it's also confusing.

The area "is not demarcated on the map, there is no boundary. The maps have not even been exchanged so that the other person knows what someone is claiming. There are no boundary markers," Dinny said.

But retired lieutenant general DS Hooda, who headed the army's Northern Command, said that there are detailed protocols that have ensured misunderstandings usually do not escalate –⁠ starting with the no-guns policy.

"If patrols come face to face, they will stand at a distance and unfurl banners. India's banner will show the Chinese are in their territory with a 'Go Back' and vice versa for China," said Hooda.

"These are the sort of protocols that have been laid down by both countries and largely these protocols have been followed in the past and things have remained peaceful," he said.

"What we are seeing right now is a complete breakdown of the protocol," he said.

"In our time we revisited our protocol and our rules of engagement so that any disagreements can be handled in a more military fashion ⁠– rather than fighting it out like goons on the street."