Significance of Ceylon-China Trade Agreement of 1952-by Dr. J. B. Kelegama


Excerpts from the keynote address at the 50 th anniversary celebrations of the historic “Rubber-Rice Pact” between Sri Lanka and China at the BMICH on December 20, 2002

I am honoured by the invitation of the Sri Lanka-China Business Cooperation Council and the Sri Lanka-China Society to deliver today the keynote address on the occasion of the golden jubilee celebrations of the historic Rubber-Rice Pact between Sri Lanka and China signed in December 1952.

I accepted this invitation with alacrity and pleasure, firstly because I have conducted negotiations with China and actually implemented the Agreement over a period of about 12 years in my capacity as a senior government official, secondly, because I have visited China seven or eight times both as a government official and a UN consultant and thirdly, because I have been a student of China’s economic development for many years and written and published several articles on China’s economic and trade issues, under my own name as well as under pen-names.

Further, I had the privilege of speaking on this subject at the death anniversary of Mr. R. G. Senanayake some years back, on the invitation of no less a person than Mrs. R. G. Senanayake herself.

The Ceylon-China Trade Agreement of 1952 was undoubtedly the most useful trade agreement negotiated by Sri Lanka and one of the most successful and durable trade agreements in the world, having been in operation for 30 years. It is therefore useful to assess the significance of the agreement and to refresh our memory regarding the circumstances that led to it and the person who played the key role in bringing it about – R. G. Senanayake.

Rice shortage

1952 was a very bad year for Sri Lanka. Premier D. S. Senanayake had died and Dudley Senanayake had just formed a new government when the country had to face a world shortage of rice.

The Government was committed at that time to provide every adult person with two measures of rice per week at a subsidised price, but rice was not available from the traditional suppliers – Burma, Thailand and Indo-China – and the world market price of rice had risen by 38 per cent between 1951 and 1952.

Sri Lanka was therefore compelled to buy 60,000 tons of rice from the USA and 10,000 tons from Ecuador at high prices, although this variety of rice was not suitable to the Sri Lankan palate. She was however not in a position to buy all the rice she needed at this high price as her foreign exchange resources were limited; besides, distribution of this rice would have pushed the food subsidy bill to intolerable levels.

The country was also facing a foreign exchange crisis in 1952 caused by a dramatic fall in her export prices brought about by the quick end of the Korean War boom. The end of the Korean War and the drastic reduction of commodity purchases by the West – in particular, of natural rubber by the United States – led to a collapse of Sri Lanka’s export prices by 23 per cent between 1951 and 1952.

The price of natural rubber declined by 36 per cent, of tea by 10 per cent, and of coconut oil by 40 per cent. Import prices increased by 8 per cent and terms-of-trade fell by 28 per cent. The trade surplus of Rs. 345 million in 1951 turned into a trade deficit of Rs. 200 million in 1952 and external assets fell by 30 per cent. In this critical situation Sri Lanka attempted to negotiate with the USA for a loan of US$50 million and for favourable prices for rubber exports and rice imports, but failed. The country was facing an unprecedented crisis: she could not find enough rice to feed her people and she had no prospect of a favourable market for her rubber exports.

It was in this grim setting that R. G. Senanayake, the then Minister of Commerce, played his master stroke. He found out that China was prepared to sell rice to Sri Lanka in exchange for rubber. At that time China was unable to obtain rubber as a result of prohibition of rubber exports from Malaya following a UN resolution preventing the sale of rubber to China. Thus China wanted rubber as badly as Sri Lanka wanted rice. R. G. Senanayake was quick to realise the mutual benefits of trade with China, and negotiated the Ceylon-China Trade Agreement or the Rubber-Rice Pact in Beijing towards the end of 1952. He stated in Parliament.

“We waited for foreign aid, foreign assistance. As you know Sir, over and over again, we made appeals for Point Four aid, we waited four long years. We have got in the form of assistance only a cook for the Kundasale Girls’ School. Therefore in these circumstances, it was necessary that we should go where it was possible to get our requirements.”


The Agreement was negotiated in the teeth of opposition from some of his own colleagues in the Cabinet. Indeed, the opposition of J. R. Jayewardene, the Minister of Finance, was well known. The Cabinet was advised by the newly created Central Bank under an American Governor. Opposition also came from R. G. Senanayake’s predecessor in the ministerial post, from the American Government, and from some of the local newspapers which carried on a virulent press campaign against any dealings with Communist China. S. P. Amarasingham’s informative book “Rice and Rubber: The Story of China-Ceylon Trade” provides a detailed account of the strong opposition R. G. Senanayake had to face in negotiating the Agreement.

The American Government invoked the Battle Act which prevented it from giving aid to countries selling strategic materials to Communist countries and cut off aid to Sri Lanka. In addition, she stopped selling sulphur needed by Sri Lanka’s rubber plantations. This was the price that had to be paid for trading with China.

Prime Minister, Dudley Senanayake, however, fully backed his Minister of Commerce and was prepared to pay this price; he realised that the benefits to Sri Lanka from the agreement far outweighed losses consequent to the cutting-off of American aid. He argued:

“Ceylon’s old trade pattern has been knocked out by changes in the world market and we have to seek new markets for our needs of essential foodstuffs and for our exports.”

Rebutting the charges that the Trade Agreement was opening the door to communist influences in Sri Lanka, he pointed out:

“Communism thrives in many places not through an understanding of that particular ideology but through poverty and want. I am confident that our Trade Agreement with China will instead of opening doors to communism help us to stand firmer against it.”

It is a tribute to the two Senanayakes that they displayed remarkable pragmatism and courage in negotiating the Trade Agreement. They did not allow their prejudices or ideological considerations to stand in the way of deciding what was in the best interests of the Country; nor were they intimidated by threats of big powers.

R. G. Senanayake stated:

“I have always held the view that political ideologies should not stand in the ways of countries trading with each other if that trade is to their mutual advantage.”

He foresaw as far back as 1952, the emergence of China as a world power. He stated in a speech: “Talking of China in particular, it would be unrealistic to ignore a nation of 500 million in our continent with a united and cohesive government for the first time in many centuries. She is bound to be a major factor in world trade.”

As he foresaw, China has now become the seventh largest exporter in the world and the largest trader among developing countries whose purchases and sales influence the world markets. In 2000 for instance, her exports were US$249 billion and imports US$225 billion. If we include Hong Kong’s trade with China (as the greater part of Hong Kong’s trade is entrepot trade with China) then China becomes the fourth largest exporter in the world after the USA, Germany and Japan, its exports amounting to $452 billion.

The Agreement

The Trade Agreement signed in 1952 was for five years and renewable; there was, however, an annual Trade Protocol specifying the quantities of commodities to be exchanged in the ensuing year, which had to be negotiated every year. The trade was based on barter – exports and imports to balance every year; only the outstanding balance at the end-of-the-year was to be settled in foreign exchange.

Trade however was rarely balanced in the following years but the outstanding balance was generally carried forward to the next year without settlement in foreign exchange.

In the first part of the agreement there were specific commitments by Sri Lanka to purchase rice, and for China to buy rubber; the values were to balance. Thus in 1953, Sri Lanka agreed to buy 270,000 tons of rice from China which in turn agreed to purchase 50,000 tons of rubber; these quantities were exchanged on the basis of world market prices and were equal in value. In addition, China agreed to pay a premium price for rubber over the world market (Singapore) price and further, handling charges for rubber exports in Colombo.

Thus in 1953, China paid for Sri Lanka rubber Rs. 1.74 per lb. whereas the average world market price was Rs. 1.05 per lb. This premium varied with every five-year agreement. The handling charge which was fixed at five cents per lb. too varied in subsequent years. China also agreed to supply rice to Sri Lanka below market prices – at 54 pounds or Rs. 720 per ton in 1953.

Thus Sri Lanka benefited both ways from the agreement. The second part of the agreement covered trade in other commodities – those Sri Lanka and China wanted to buy and sell – but without specific commitments; the total value of exports and imports however were expected to balance every year. In view of the substantial mutual benefits, the Trade Agreement was renewed every five years by R. G. Senanayake’s successors in his ministerial post – in 1958, 1962, 1967, 1972 and 1977 – and was wound up, in the sense that the barter element was given up, in 1982 when it was found that the barter of rice and rubber was no longer in mutual interest. Sri Lanka had almost reached self-sufficiency in rice and needed only very small quantities from abroad while China was able to purchase rubber from several rubber producing countries without restriction and without paying a premium.

R. G. Senanayake paid an important tribute to China after negotiating the Trade Agreement, when he concluded his Cabinet paper on the subject in the following words:

“We noted on the Chinese side the absence of the spirit of bargaining and haggling on comparatively small points. On the other hand, they gave us the impression of being large-minded and forthright in their dealings.”

I can confirm this as I conducted trade negotiations with China over a dozen times. Benefits

The significance of the Ceylon-China Trade Agreement lies in the positive benefits Ceylon received during the thirty years of its duration. Those benefits exceeded expectation as China expressed her gratitude to Sri Lanka for supplying her rubber when other rubber producers were not prepared to do so and in spite of the opposition and denial of aid by the US Government. These benefits are discussed in detail below.

(1) The premium over world market price for rubber was estimated between Rs. 68 and Rs. 95 million in 1953 alone. It was about 56 per cent more than the world market price in that year. No estimates are available for successive years, but the premium was substantial, for even a ten cents premium meant Rs. 200 per metric ton and Rs. 10 million for 50,000 tons.

(2) The handling charge of 5 cents per lb., in 1953 was equal to Rs. 100 per metric ton or Rs. 5 million for 50,000 metric tons of rubber. As the charge and quantity varied from year-to-year the total sum too changed, but it was significant.

(3) The sale of rice by China to Sri Lanka at prices below the world market resulted in a net benefit of about Rs. 92 million in 1953 alone. Although there was a net benefit in the following years, no estimates have been made. China agreed to sell rice at the same price Burma sold rice to Sri Lanka with certain adjustments for differences in quality and transport costs. China never tried to exploit the rice market to her advantage.

Even when she did not have an exportable surplus, she supplied Sri Lanka with rice direct from Burma under a triangular trade arrangement, but charged us only the price she paid Burma – not a cent more – even when she had reason to charge something more.

(4) As a result of the agreement a grant of about Rs. 125 million was extended by China during the ten-year period 1958-68 to meet part of the costs of rubber replanting. Thousands of acres of uneconomic rubber land were replanted thereby revitalizing our rubber industry.

(5) China continued to purchase Sri Lanka’s rubber at a premium even when other markets were prepared to sell her rubber at lower prices.

(6) Sri Lanka found an assured market for her rubber and an assured source of supply for her rice and insured herself to a great extent against vagaries in the world market. She also diversified her export and import markets.

(7) The Trade Agreement benefitted the Ceylonese traders as against non-national traders by creating a new market for them. In spite of the opposition from non-national trading establishments – particularly British managing agency houses – R.G. Senanayake reserved the export of rubber to China for the Ceylonese traders. He also reserved China for the Ceylonese importer under his policy of Ceylonizing the external trade of the country.

(8) The Trade Agreement laid the foundation for expanding trade between Sri Lanka and China even after the barter agreement ceased to operate. In 2001 for instance China and Hong Kong (which mainly re-exports China’s products) constituted the largest supplier of imports valued at Rs. 64 billion to Sri Lanka.

(9) Economic co-operation between Sri Lanka and China began with the Trade Agreement. It was expanded by leaps and bounds with establishment of diplomatic relations with China by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and closer relations under Sirimavo Bandaranaike as symbolised by the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH), textile mills at Veyangoda and Pugoda, other grants and interest-free loans. Economic co-operation thereafter is demonstrated by the superior courts complex, Gin ganga scheme and assistance to restore Abayagiri dagaba.

(10) The Ceylon-China Trade Agreement with its price concessions for both Sri Lanka’s exports and imports and assistance to rubber replanting by China was perhaps the first instance of a developing country giving economic assistance to another developing country. In other words, it was the first time where economic co-operation among developing countries or South-South co-operation took place.

(11) Finally, Ceylon-China Trade Agreement and closer commercial and economic relations laid the foundations for a firm friendship between Sri Lanka and China, which was strengthened, expanded, and cemented by the Bandaranaike governments. China’s friendship for Sri Lanka has been demonstrated not only in trade and economic co-operation but also in times of national crisis. There was only China to warn other countries to ‘keep their hands off Sri Lanka’ at the height of the Indo-Lanka crisis in June-July 1987. This friendship was demonstrated again thereafter by the visit of Prime Minister of China and his offer of Rs. 375 million in economic assistance.

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