Suzerainty (/ˈszərənti, -rɛnti/) is a relationship in which one state or other polity controls the foreign policy and relations of a tributary state, while allowing the tributary state to have internal autonomy.[1] The dominant state is called the "suzerain".

Suzerainty differs from sovereignty in that the tributary state is technically independent, but enjoys only limited self-rule. Although the situation has existed in a number of historical empires, it is considered difficult to reconcile with 20th- or 21st-century concepts of international law, in which sovereignty is a binary which either exists or does not. While a sovereign state can agree by treaty to become a protectorate of a stronger power, modern international law does not recognise any way of making this relationship compulsory on the weaker power. Suzerainty is a practical, de facto situation, rather than a legal, de jure one.

Imperial China

Historically, the Emperor of China saw himself as the centre of the entire civilised world, and diplomatic relations in East Asia were based on the theory that all rulers of the world derived their authority from the Chinese emperor. The degree to which this authority existed evolved from dynasty to dynasty. However, even during periods when political power was distributed evenly across several Chinese political entities, Chinese political theory recognised only one legitimate 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 tributary relations in practice 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 Manchu-led Qing dynasty, which ruled over a multi-ethnic empire and justified their rule through different theories of rulership. While not contradicting traditional Chinese theories of the emperor as the universal ruler, the Qing dynasty made a distinction between areas of the world where they ruled and areas where they did not. Second, the system further broke down as China was confronted by Western powers whose theories of sovereignty were based on their own version of international law and relations between separate states.

Unequal treaties

China felt forced to accept a series of "unequal treaties" including the Treaty of Nanking (1842), the Treaty of Tientsin (1858), and the Convention of Peking (1860), whereby China was made to open new ports, including Canton, Amoy, and Shanghai. These treaties allowed the British to annex Hong Kong and resulted in the establishment of international settlements in ports that were controlled by foreigners. They also required China to permanently accept diplomats at the capital Peking, provided for free movement for foreign ships in Chinese rivers, imposed European regulation of Chinese tariffs, and opened the interior region to Christian missionaries. Numerous regions of China such as Taiwan, Outer Manchuria, Outer Northwest China and Macau were ceded to Japan, Russia and Portugal through a series of "unequal treaties" imposed on China after the Chinese were defeated in wars. Since the 1920s, the "unequal treaties" have been a centrepiece 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. Foreign powers rejected the Chinese concept and eventually seized these areas from Chinese influence. Japan took Korea[3] and the Ryukyu Islands, France took Vietnam, and Britain took Upper Burma.[4]

One way that the 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 had regarded Tibet as under Chinese "suzerainty", but in 2008 the British Foreign Secretary David Miliband called that word an "anachronism" in a statement, and joined the rest of the European Union and the United States in recognizing Tibet as a part of China.[5]

Ancient Israel and Near East

Suzerainty treaties and similar covenants and agreements between Middle Eastern states were quite prevalent during the pre-monarchic and monarchy periods in Ancient Israel. The Hittites, Egyptians, and Assyrians had been suzerains to the Israelites and other tribal kingdoms of the Levant from 1200 to 600 BCE. The structure of Jewish covenant law was similar to the Hittite form of suzerain.[6]

Each treaty would typically begin with an "Identification" of the Suzerain, followed by an historical prologue cataloguing the relationship between the two groups "with emphasis on the benevolent actions of the suzerain towards the vassal".[6] Following the historical prologue came the stipulation. This included tributes, obligations and other forms of subordination that would be imposed on the Israelites.[6] According to the Hittite form, after the stipulations were offered to the vassal, it was necessary to include a request to have copies of the treaty that would be read throughout the kingdom periodically.[6] 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. For disobedience, curses would be given to those who had not remained steadfast in carrying out the stipulations of the treaty.[7][8]

Hittite suzerainty treaty form

Below is a form of a Hittite suzerainty treaty.[6]

  • Preamble: Identifies the parties involved in the treaty, the author, the title of the sovereign party, and usually his genealogy. It usually emphasises the greatness of the king or dominant party.[9]
  • Prologue: Lists the deeds already performed by the Suzerain on behalf of the vassal. This section would outline the previous relationship the two groups had up until that point with historical detail and facts that are very beneficial to scholars today, such as scholar George Mendenhall who focuses on this type of covenant as it pertained to the Israelite traditions.[9] The suzerain would document previous events in which they did a favor that benefitted the vassal. The purpose of this would show that the more powerful group was merciful and giving, therefore, the vassal should obey the stipulations that are presented in the treaty. It discusses the relationship between them as a personal relationship instead of a solely political one. Most importantly in this section, the vassal is agreeing to future obedience for the benefits that he received in the past without deserving them.
  • Stipulations: Terms to be upheld by the vassal for the life of the treaty; defines how the vassal is obligated and gives more of the legalities associated with the covenant.
  • 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 and to inform the public of the expectations involved and increase respect for the sovereign party, usually the king.[9]
  • Divine witness to the treaty: These usually include the deities of both the Suzerain and the vassal, but put special emphasis on the deities of the vassal.
  • Blessings if the stipulations of the treaty were upheld and curses if the stipulations were not upheld. These blessings and curses were generally seen to come from the gods instead of punishment by the dominant party for example.
  • Sacrificial Meal: Both parties would share a meal to show their participation in the treaty.


British paramountcy

The British East India Company conquered Bengal in 1757, and gradually extended its control over the whole of India. It annexed many of the erstwhile Indian kingdoms (hereafter "states") but entered into alliances with the others. Some states were created by the East India Company itself through the grant of jagirs to influential allies. The states varied enormously in size and influence, with Hyderabad at the upper end with 16.5 million people and an annual revenue of 100 million rupees and states like Babri at the lower end with a population of 27 people and annual revenue of 80 rupees.[10]

These states were subject to the 'paramountcy' of the British Crown. The term was never precisely defined but it meant that the Indian states were subject to the suzerainty of the British Crown exercised through the Viceroy of India. The principle was asserted in a letter by Lord Reading to the Nizam of Hyderabad in 1926, "The sovereignty of the British Crown is supreme in India and therefore no ruler of an Indian State can justifiably claim to negotiate with the British Government on an equal footing." This meant that the Indian states were Crown dependencies or protectorates of the British Indian government. They could not make war or have any direct dealings with foreign states. Neither did they enjoy full internal autonomy. The British government could and did interfere in their internal affairs if the imperial interests were involved or if it proved necessary in the interest of good governance. In some cases, the British government also deposed the Indian princes.[11]

Scholars hold[who?] that the system of Paramountcy was a system of limited sovereignty only in appearance. In a reality, it was a system of recruitment of a reliable base of support for the Imperial State. The support of the Imperial State obviated the need for the rulers to seek legitimacy through patronage and dialogue with their populations. Through their direct as well as indirect rule through the princes, the colonial State turned the population of India into 'subjects' rather than citizens.[12]

The Government of India Act 1935 envisaged that India would be a federation of autonomous provinces balanced by Indian princely states. This plan never came to fruition.[13] The political conditions were oppressive in several princely states giving rise to political movements. Under pressure from Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian National Congress resolved not to interfere directly but called on the princes to increase civil liberties and reduce their own privileges.[14]

With the impending independence of India in 1947, the Governor-General Lord Mountbatten announced that the British paramountcy over the Indian states would come to an end. The states were advised to 'accede' to one of the new Dominions, India and Pakistan. An Instrument of Accession was devised for this purpose. The Congress leaders agreed to the plan with the condition that Mountbatten ensure that the majority of the states within the Indian territory accede to India. Under pressure from the Governor-General, all the Indian states acceded to India save two, Junagadh and Hyderabad. The two states acceded later, under coercion from India. Jammu and Kashmir, which shared a border with India as well as Pakistan, acceded to India when a Pakistan-backed invasion threatened its survival.[15][16]


Following the independence of India in 1947, a treaty signed between the Chogyal of Sikkim Palden Thondup Namgyal, and the Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru gave India suzerainty over Kingdom of 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.

Lakshadweep (Laccadives)

Located in the Arabian Sea, Lakshadweep is a Union territory of India off the coast of the southwestern state of Kerala. The Aminidivi 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 Kingdom 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 India 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 Transvaal Colony, which existed until 1910, when it became the Province of Transvaal in the Union of South Africa.

Second World War

Despite being occupied by the Axis powers, several Western and Asian countries were allowed to exercise self-rule. Several states were created in order to facilitate their occupation, including Vichy France, Manchukuo, the Empire of Vietnam, the Independent State of Croatia in Croatia and the Lokot Autonomy in Central Russia.[clarification needed]

German Empire

Following the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the German Empire received a very short-lived suzerainty over the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. New monarchies were created in Lithuania and the United Baltic Duchy (which comprised the modern countries of Latvia and Estonia). The German aristocrats Wilhelm Karl, Duke of Urach (in Lithuania), and Adolf Friedrich, Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin (in the United Baltic Duchy), were appointed as rulers. This plan was detailed by German Colonel General Erich Ludendorff, who wrote, "German prestige demands that we should hold a strong protecting hand, not only over German citizens, but over all Germans."[17]

Historical suzerainties

The Ottoman Empire:

The Qing dynasty:

The Japan:

In Europe:

In Indonesia:

The Republic of Mexico:

See also


Inline citations

  1. ^ "Suzerain". Merriam Webster.
  2. ^ Dong Wang (2003). "The Discourse of Unequal Treaties in Modern China". Pacific Affairs. 76 (3): 399–425.
  3. ^ Young Park (2009). Korea and the Imperialists: In Search of a National Identity. AuthorHouse. pp. 49–50. ISBN 9781467061407.
  4. ^ George D. E. Philip et al. eds. (1994). British documents on foreign affairs—reports and papers from the Foreign Office Confidential Print: From the mid-nineteenth century to the First World War. Great Britain. Foreign Office. ISBN 9780890936061.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  5. ^ Spencer, Richard (2008-11-05). "UK recognises China's direct rule over Tibet". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 2010-07-12.
  6. ^ a b c d e Coogan, Michael D. (2009). A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 100. ISBN 978-0-19-983011-4.
  7. ^ Coogan, Michael D. (2009). A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 103. ISBN 978-0-19-983011-4.
  8. ^ Hindson, Ed; Yates, Gary, eds. (2012). The Essence of the Old Testament: A Survey. Nashville: B & H Publishing Group. p. 113.
  9. ^ a b c Mendenhall, G. (1954). "Covenant Forms in Israelite Tradition". The Biblical Archaeologist. The American Schools of Oriental Research. 17 (3): 49–76. doi:10.2307/3209151. JSTOR 3209151. S2CID 166165146.
  10. ^ Gupta 1958, pp. 145–146.
  11. ^ Gupta 1958, p. 148.
  12. ^ Bose & Jalal 2004, p. 83.
  13. ^ Stein & Arnold 2010, p. 306.
  14. ^ Stein & Arnold 2010, pp. 336–337.
  15. ^ Stein & Arnold 2010, pp. 357–358.
  16. ^ Menon 1956.
  17. ^ Ludendorff, Erich von (1920). The General Staff and its Problems. London. p. 562.
  18. ^ Dickinson, Edwin De Witt, The Equality of States in International Law, p239
  19. ^ a b c Zhu, Yuan Yi (2020). "Suzerainty, Semi-Sovereignty, and International Legal Hierarchies on China's Borderlands". Asian Journal of International Law. Cambridge University Press. 10 (2): 293–320. doi:10.1017/S204425132000020X.

Sources cited

  • Bose, Sugata; Jalal, Ayesha (2004). Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy (2nd ed.). Psychology Press. ISBN 978-0-415-30787-1.
  • Garver, John W. (2001). Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century. Seattle: U of Washington P.
  • Gupta, Manik Lal (1958). Constitutional Development of India. Atlantic Publishers & Distri. pp. 146–. GGKEY:FYQFERQJW2U.
  • Menon, V.P. (1956). The Story of the Integration of the Indian States. New York: Macmillan.
  • Stein, Burton; Arnold, David (2010). A History of India (2nd ed.). John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-1-4051-9509-6. Retrieved 27 July 2012.