Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India has said his country will not compromise on “integrity and sovereignty” after clashes on Monday between Chinese and Indian troops at the disputed Himalayan border.

The battle in the Ladakh region in the high Himalayas was the bloodiest between Indian and Chinese soldiers for more than 30 years. At least 20 Indian Army troops were killed in an exchange in which no firearms appear to have been used.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army has not declared its casualties. According to unofficial reports in the region 43 Chinese military were killed. There are also reports of prisoners being taken, and missing on both sides.

The clash was at checkpoint 17 in the Galwan valley, along the 2,100 mile border embracing the so-called Line of Actual Control. The area has been disputed since 1947. In 1962 India and China fought an all-out war over the Ladakh sector. Air and naval units were mobilized at the theatre of conflict spread. Altogether some 2,000 Indian and Chinese military personnel died.

As more details of Monday’s fighting emerge, observers in China and India and beyond fear that this no local spat in a long-running contest over border outposts in one of the most hostile battlegrounds in the world. The latest clash was fought in sub-zero temperatures.

The area is part of the Kashmir Himalaya complex, which is disputed by India, China, Pakistan, and insurgent separatists. Indian and Chinese soldiers fought in 1967, when it was claimed 400 Chinese died, and there was a further outbreak of violence ten years later. In 2017 a standoff took place over a disputed border road.

Over recent months India and China have been trying to de-escalate by disengaging at three strongpoints on the border. The first was supposed to be the border point 17 in the Galwan valley. But trouble started when the Indian frontier forces claimed the Chinese were building an illegal strongpoint on the banks of the river Galwan. India persists in claiming that China is building a new network of strategic roads to reinforce their presence in the area. China says India is out to grab large tracts of territory to which they have no right.

The Chinese immediately reinforced with 250 soldiers at the flashpoint, and altogether about 1,000 troops were brought up. Earlier, the Chinese were accused of bringing up artillery. By a bizarre twist of the protocols of the frontier regime, neither side appear to have resorted to firearms. However, under Article VI of the UN Charter, peacekeeping troops can open fire in self-defence.

The fighting was brutal nonetheless, involving batons wrapped in barbed wire, clubs with nails and knives. The most senior casualty was Colonel Santosh Babu, commanding officer of 16 Bihar Regiment. Dozens of wounded were airlifted by helicopter.

If not defused immediately, the clash could have grave regional and global consequences. It adds to the great geo-political tinder box of the whole Kashmir region. It is a further indication of the rising tensions between the two regional super-powers, who are also the most populous nations on earth.

Kashmir is the major strategic cockpit since independence came to India and Pakistan in 1947. In May and June 1999 Indian and Pakistani forces fought at Kargil, in the western part of Ladakh district, with 1,500 killed in temperatures of -10 degrees Celsius. Last year , 20 years on, India bombed around Balakat in Khyber as a reprisal for a suicide attack that had killed 40 Indian troops at a checkpoint on Kashmir’s internal border, the Line of Control.

Both Delhi and Beijing are in theory committed to resolving the border disputes along the 2,100 mile border – as both are committed to a peaceful trading coexistence across the wider Asia-Pacific region. But rivalry is intense. Both leaderships are under pressure from the Covid-19 crisis, though they don’t admit it too much. Having claimed to have beaten the virus, China now has lockdown in the capital, with the announcement of 137 positive cases in the past three days. In India, the incidence of the disease in the great conurbations and remote villages can be little more than a guesstimate.

Supreme leader Xi Jinping is intent on establishing his authority, cracking down on unauthorized reporting of the pandemic, invoking new powers over Hong Kong and yet more curbs on the Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang. Taiwan’s evident success in tackling the coronavirus, potentially a huge propaganda victory, has been met with growls of belligerence from Beijing, shortening the odds that Communist China is seriously considering invasion in the not too distant future.

Xi’s biggest foreign policy project is the Belt and Road Initiative, a land and sea project to make a Silk Road trading network, and a maritime equivalent, fit for 21st century dominance. In some areas it isn’t going too well, as countries are finding themselves paying off Chinese loans at prohibitive rates while having their sovereignty eroded. This brings us back to Kashmir and the Himalayan border.

Pakistan is the most important partner in Belt and Road in this sector of  central Asia, though in terms of commercial and political weight a very junior one. By backing Pakistan, China can challenge charges of being anti-Islamic. It also draws in the row between Pakistan and India, since last August Narendra Modi cancelled article 370 of the Indian constitution, revoking the autonomy of Jammu, the Indian part of Kashmir.  This is another toxic ingredient to the Himalaya border confrontation.  

A further point of tension is the changing relationship between America and China. This has deteriorated severely due to the trade war launched by Donald Trump and the controversy over Huawei’s infiltration of western communications, 5G in particular. It is now an open possibility that key communications industries and manufacturers such as Apple and Qualcomm could shift their production bases from China to India.

This could now be boosted by the ripple effect of Monday’s clash in one of the highest battlegrounds of the world, a nasty, bloody skirmish fought with medieval weaponry.