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Suzerainty (/ˈsjzərənti/ or /ˈsjzərɛnti/) occurs where a region or people is a tributary to a more powerful entity which controls its foreign affairs while allowing the tributary vassal state some limited domestic autonomy.[1] The dominant entity in the suzerainty relationship, or the more powerful entity itself, is called a suzerain. The term suzerainty was originally used to describe the relationship between the Ottoman Empire and its surrounding regions. It differs from sovereignty in that the tributary enjoys some (often limited) self-rule.

A suzerain can also refer to a feudal lord, to whom vassals must pay tribute. Although it is a concept which has existed in a number of historical empires, it is a concept that is very difficult to describe using 20th- or 21st-century theories of international law, in which sovereignty either exists or does not. While a sovereign nation can agree by treaty to become a protectorate of a stronger power, modern international law does not recognize any way of making this relationship compulsory on the weaker power.

Imperial China

Historically, the Emperor of China saw himself as the center of the entire civilized world, and diplomatic relations in East Asia were based on the theory that all rulers of the world derived their authority from the Emperor. The degree to which this authority existed in fact changed from dynasty to dynasty. However, even during periods when political power was distributed evenly across several political entities, Chinese political theory recognized only one emperor and asserted that his authority was paramount throughout the world. Diplomatic relations with the Chinese emperor were made on the theory of tributary states, although in practice tributary relations would often result in a form of trade under the theory that the emperor in his kindness would reward the tributary state with gifts of equal or greater value.

This system broke down in the 18th and 19th centuries in two ways. First during the 17th century, China was ruled by the ethnically Manchu Qing dynasty which ruled a multi-ethnic empire and justified their rule through different theories of rulership. While not contradicting traditional Han Chinese theories of the emperor as universal ruler, the Qing did begin to make a distinction between areas of the world which they ruled and areas which they did not. The system also broke down as China faced European powers whose theories of sovereignty were based on international law and relations between separate states.

Unequal treaties

Main article: Unequal treaty

A series of "unequal treaties" (including among others the Treaty of Nanjing, 1842; the treaties of Tianjin, 1858; and the Beijing Conventions, 1860) forced China to open new ports, including Canton, Amoy, and Shanghai. They allowed the British to set up their own colony at Hong Kong and established international settlements in these ports that were controlled by the foreigners. They required China to permanently accept diplomats at Peking; provided for the free movement for foreign ships in Chinese rivers; imposed European regulation of Chinese tariffs and opened the interior to Christian missionaries. Ever since the 1920s the "unequal treaties" have been a centerpiece of Chinese grievances against the West.[2]

For centuries China had claimed suzerain authority over numerous adjacent areas. The areas had internal autonomy but were theoretically under the protection of China in terms of foreign affairs. By the 19th century the relationships were nominal, and China exerted little or no actual control. The Western powers rejected the concept and one by one seized the suzerain areas. Japan took Korea,[3] the Ryukus and Formosa; France took Vietnam; Britain took Upper Burma[4] and Nepal; Russia took parts of Siberia. Only Tibet was left, and that was highly problematic since the Tibetans did not accept it.[5] Each case represented yet another humiliation and demonstration of weakness.

One way European states attempted to describe the relations between the Qing Dynasty and its outlying regions was in terms of suzerainty, although this did not completely match the traditional Chinese diplomatic theory. Since the Great Game, the British Empire has regarded strategic Tibet under Chinese "suzerainty". But in 2008 British Foreign Secretary David Miliband in a statement called that word an "anachronism", and joined the European Union and the United States in recognizing Tibet as a part of China.[6]

Ancient Near East, specifically Israel

While the structure of ancient Hittite treaties was recorded by Victor Korošec,[7] the first application of the Suzerainty structure to Israel was presented by George E. Mendenhall in 1955.[8]

Suzerainty treaties and similar covenants and agreements between near-eastern nations were quite prevalent in the pre-monarchic and

Following historical prologue comes the stipulations

The treaty would have divine and earthly witnesses purporting the treaty's validity, trustworthiness, and efficacy. This also tied into the blessings that would come from following the treaty and the curses from breaching it. This section is also missing from the initial issuing of the Ten Commandments. For disobedience, curses would be given to those who had not remained steadfast in carrying out the stipulations of the treaty. Coogan offers two verses for the curses and blessings,

Although the above is true, the full form of the Suzerain Treaty is found in the restatement of the law to the second generation of Israelites in the book of Deuteronomy.[12]

Hittite suzerainty treaty form

Below is a form of a Hittite Suzerainty Treaty.[13]

  • Preamble: Identifies the parties involved in the treaty
  • Prologue: Lists the deeds already performed by the Suzerain on behalf of the vassal
  • Stipulations: Terms to be upheld by the vassal for the life of the treaty
  • Provision for annual public reading: A copy of the treaty was to be read aloud annually in the vassal state for the purpose of renewal
  • Divine witness to the treaty: These usually include the deities of both the Suzerain and the vassal
  • Blessings if the stipulations of the treaty are upheld and curses if the stipulations are not upheld
  • Sacrificial Meal: Both parties would share a meal to show their participation in the treaty



Following India's independence in 1947, a treaty signed between the Chogyal and the then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru gave India suzerainty over Sikkim in exchange for it retaining its independence. This continued until 1975, when the Sikkimese monarchy was abolished in favour of a merger into India. Sikkim is now one of the states of India.


India no longer looks after the external, defence, communications, and foreign affairs of Bhutan. However India provides substantial support to the Royal Bhutan Army and guarantees its support against external aggression.


Located in the Arabian Sea, Lakshadweep is a Union Territory of India off the coast of the southwestern state of Kerala. The Amindivi group of islands (Amini, Kadmat, Kiltan, Chetlat and Bitra) came under the rule of Tipu Sultan in 1787. They passed on to British control after the Third Anglo-Mysore War and were attached to the South Canara district. The rest of the islands became a suzerainty of the Arakkal family of Cannanore in return for a payment of annual tribute.

After a while, the British took over the administration of those islands for non-payment of arrears. These islands were attached to the Malabar district of the Madras Presidency. In 1956, the States Reorganisation Act separated these islands from the mainland administrative units, forming a new union territory by combining all the islands.


The Princely States of the British Raj which acceded to Pakistan maintained their sovereignty with the Government of Pakistan acting as the Suzerain until 1956 for Bahawalpur, Khairpur, and the Balochistan States, 1969 for Chitral and the Frontier States, and 1974 for Hunza and Nagar. All these territories have since been merged into Pakistan.

South African Republic

After the First Boer War (1880–81), the South African Republic was granted its independence, albeit under British suzerainty. During the Second Boer War (1899–1902), the South African Republic was annexed as the Colony of the Transvaal, which existed until 1910, when it became the Province of Transvaal in the Union of South Africa.

United States

When applied to the United States, the concept of suzerainty also includes the concept of federalism in the United States and the evolving relationship between the federal government, state governments and the indigenous peoples in the United States (or Indian tribes.)

Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution states that “Congress shall have the power to regulate Commerce with foreign nations and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes”

The Louisiana Purchase as well as at least four significant United States Supreme Court decisions have provided guidelines in how to interpret the constitutional provisions.

Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823)

In Johnson v. M'Intosh 21 U.S. (8 Wheat.) 543 (1823), the Court applied the rule of conquest and subsequent division that was accepted by the nations of Europe at the time; that title properly belonged to the nation which discovered (or conquered and had dominion over) the new land. This meant that there was a diminishment of the natives’ ability to dispose of their land; natives could live on the land, but that they could not grant the land to a private individual. According to the treaty ending the Revolutionary War (the Treaty of Paris (1783)), Great Britain relinquished any claim to “proprietary and territorial rights of the United States.” Thus, the United States owned the entirety of the lands which were situated within the boundaries of the states existing at that time and those natives who lived within such boundaries did not own title to the land. [14] At the end of the Revolutionary War, the land of the United States was east of the Mississippi River excluding the area around New Orleans.

Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831)

In the Cherokee Nation v. Georgia 30 U.S. 1 (1831), it was observed that the acts of the United States Government plainly recognize the Cherokee Nation as a State. Numerous treaties made with the tribe by the United States recognise them as a people capable of "maintaining the relations of peace and war." Therefore, the Courts are bound by those acts. It was concluded that the tribes' relations to the United States resemble that of a ward to his guardian and were a "denominated domestic dependent nation" and not a foreign nation. [15]

Worcester v. Georgia (1832)

In Worcester v. Georgia 31 U.S. (6 Pet.) 515 (1832) it was affirmed that the Federal Government inherited the rights of Great Britain as they were held by that nation; it was acknowledged that the exercise of conquest and purchase can give political dominion, but those are in the hands of the federal government and not the states. Specifically, the court ruled that the Cherokee Nation was a "distinct community" with self-government "in which the laws of Georgia can have no force." This case established the doctrine that the national government of the United States, and not individual states, had authority in Indian affairs.

United States v. Kagama (1886)

Indian Territory was reduced to the approximate boundaries of the current state of Oklahoma by the Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854. During the American Civil War, several Indian Tribes signed treaties with the Confederacy. At the conclusion of the war, the US Government and tribes signed new Reconstruction Treaties and the government changed their policy from Indian removal to assimilation.

The Indian Appropriations Act of 1871 had two significant sections. First, the Act required the Federal Government no longer interact with the various tribes through treaties, but rather through statutes by stating, in part,

[n]o Indian nation or tribe within the territory of the United States shall be acknowledged or recognized as an independent nation . . .”.[16]

The 1871 Act also made it a federal crime to commit murder, manslaughter, rape, assault with intent to kill, arson, burglary, and larceny within any Territory of the United States.

The 1871 Act was affirmed in 1886 by the US Supreme Court, in United States v. Kagama 118 U.S. 375 (1886), which affirmed that the Congress has Plenary power over all Native American tribes within its borders by rationalization that “The power of the general government over these remnants of a race once powerful… is necessary to their protection as well as to the safety of those among whom they dwell”.[17] Before 1871 United States had recognized the Indian Tribes as semi-independent. The Supreme Court affirmed that the US Government “has the right and authority, instead of controlling them by treaties, to govern them by acts of Congress, they being within the geographical limit of the United States… The Indians owe no allegiance to a State within which their reservation may be established, and the State gives them no protection.”.[18]

Historical suzerainties

To the Ottoman Empire:

To the Republic of China:

In Europe:

See also



  • Garver, John W. Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century. Seattle: U of Washington P, 2001.

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