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Suzerainty ( or ) is a situation in which a powerful region or people controls the foreign policy and international relations of a tributary vassal state while allowing the subservient nation internal 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 refer to 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 that has existed in a number of historical empires, it is a concept considered 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 1
    • Unequal treaties 1.1
  • Ancient Israel and Near East 2
    • Hittite suzerainty treaty form 2.1
  • India 3
    • Sikkim 3.1
    • Bhutan 3.2
    • Lakshadweep 3.3
  • Pakistan 4
  • South African Republic 5
  • United States 6
    • Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823) 6.1
    • Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) 6.2
    • Worcester v. Georgia (1832) 6.3
    • United States v. Kagama (1886) 6.4
  • Historical suzerainties 7
  • See also 8
  • Notes 9
  • References 10

Imperial China

Historically, the Emperor of China saw himself as the centre 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

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 Ryukyus; France took Vietnam; Britain took Upper Burma;.[4] Only Tibet was left, and that was highly problematic because 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 Israel and Near East

Suzerainty treaties and similar covenants and agreements between near-eastern nations 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 1200–600 BCE. The structure of Jewish covenant law was similar to the Hittite form of suzerain.[7]

Each treaty would typically begin with an "Identification" of the Suzerain, followed by an historical prologue which catalogues the relationship between the two groups, "with emphasis on the benevolent actions of the suzerain towards the vassal."[8] Following the historical prologue came the stipulation. This includes tributes, obligations and other forms of subordination that will be imposed on the Israelites.[7] 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.[7] 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.[9][10]

Hittite suzerainty treaty form

Below is a form of a Hittite Suzerainty Treaty.[11]

  • Preamble: Identifies the parties involved in the treaty, the author, the title of the sovereign party, and usually his genealogy. It usually emphasizes the greatness of the king or dominant party.[12]
  • 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. [13]
  • 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.[12]
  • 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 are upheld and curses if the stipulations are 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.



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.


Since 1949, 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 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 (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 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 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”

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 [15]

Worcester v. Georgia (1832)


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 American Indian 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 the 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

The Ottoman Empire:

Ching China (Qing China) and the Republic of China:

In Europe:

See also


  1. ^ Merriam Webster
  2. ^ Dong Wang, "The Discourse of Unequal Treaties in Modern China," Pacific Affairs (2003) 76#3 pp 399–425.
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ a b c Michael D. Coogan, A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 100
  8. ^ Michael D. Coogan, A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009 100
  9. ^ Michael D. Coogan, A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 103
  10. ^ Ed Hindson & Gary Yates, Editors, The Essence of the Old Testament: A Survey, (Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2012), 113
  11. ^ Michael D. Coogan, A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 100.
  12. ^ a b Mendenhall, G. (1954) ‘Covenant Forms in Israelite Tradition’, The Biblical Archaeologist. The American Schools of Oriental Research, 17(3), pp. 49–76. doi: 10.2307/3209151.
  13. ^ Mendenhall, George E. "Covenant Forms in Israelite Tradition". The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 17, No. 3 (Sep., 1954), pp. 49–76
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^ 25 U.S.C. § 71. Indian Appropriation Act of March 3, 1871, 16 Stat. 544, 566
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^ Dickinson, Edwin De Witt, The Equality of States in International Law, p239


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