Never bring a knife to a gunfight, the saying goes, but China does it differently. It brings clubs.

Last Monday, China and India had the nastiest frontier incident since their border war of 1962. In the Galwan Valley of the Aksai Chin, a disputed region the size of Switzerland in the western Himalayas, Chinese and Indian border patrols clashed and 20 Indian soldiers were killed — yet not a shot was fired. The killing was all done with clubs, stones and bare hands.

This is bizarre. Not even in the movies will you see a bar fight or street fight that leaves 20 dead. Killing people without firearms is actually quite hard.

To make things even weirder, the Chinese report blames the incident on India but does not complain of any Chinese casualties. And the first Indian reports said that three Indian soldiers had been killed, only many hours later admitting that an additional “17 Indian troops who were critically injured in the line of duty” had died from their injuries.

At first glance, this looks quite serious. The two countries contain about a third of the human race, most of their long border is in dispute, they have fought over it in the past, and they both have nuclear weapons. And while neither India nor China wants a nuclear war, obviously, they are both angry and determined.

Neither side is being forthcoming about the details of this clash, but we can use the available information to figure out the broad outlines of what happened. First of all, it was probably a Chinese ambush. It’s hard to see how a fight without firearms could have killed 20 Indians and few or no Chinese unless the Indians were taken by surprise.

Secondly, local media reports say that the Indian troops were “beaten to death,” which suggests that the Chinese were much better prepared: There are no clubs wrapped in barbed wire just lying around in the Aksai Chin. This looks like a preplanned Chinese operation, carefully designed to kill enough Indian troops to warn the Indian government off but minimize the risk of escalation.

And how to account for the 17 Indian soldiers who died from their injuries after a few hours? So many injured dying so quickly makes no sense unless the rest of the Indian force withdrew, leaving the injured to die of exposure in the sub-zero temperature 4,000 meters up — and the Chinese withdrew too, leaving nothing behind but a message.

What message? Don’t mess with us. We don’t really care about this useless, frozen valley, and we’re happy to leave it as a no-man’s-land. But if you keep pushing forward, we’re going to smack you down. And we can.

India has been pushing forward, building a new road in the most remote part of the Aksai Chin. No doubt the Indian military told themselves that they were just improving their tactical position — and no doubt the Chinese military saw it as a land-grab. That’s how it usually works on this frontier.

The confrontations over this new road began 40 days ago, and they have all been conducted without gunfire because the two sides signed an agreement in 1996 that says “neither side shall open fire ... conduct blast operations or hunt with guns or explosives within 2 kilometers of the Line of Actual Control.”

They have kept to that agreement for almost a quarter-century because neither side wants a war over this uninhabited wasteland; they both have much bigger fish to fry elsewhere. But the Chinese clearly got fed up with the endless shoving and stone-throwing sessions and decided to tell the Indians it’s time to stop. That’s pretty much what happened back in 1962, too.

The conflict started along the eastern part of the border that time, but all of it is in dispute to some extent. There have been many failed attempts to pin the line down by governments that no longer even exist — the Dalai Lamas in Lhasa, the Qing dynasty and the Nationalist regime in Beijing, and the British Raj in Delhi — and the fact that hardly anybody lives there makes defining it even harder.

The problem in 1962 also began with Indian troops trying to improve their positions in the disputed territories: a so-called Forward Policy. Mao Zedong’s government decided to drive the Indian army out of all the land under dispute, and then, after the Indians had been “taught a lesson,” to declare a unilateral ceasefire and pull all China’s troops back to their original positions.

It was a major military operation, with 700 Chinese and over 3,000 Indian soldiers killed or missing. But Mao predicted that it “will guarantee at least 30 years of peace” along the frontier, and that’s just what it did.

Think of this as just another 1962, but in miniature and without bullets.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist based in London.