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Suzerainty ( or RP, or GA) is a situation in which a region or people is a tributary to a more powerful entity which controls its foreign affairs while allowing the tributary some limited domestic autonomy. The superior 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 has some (limited) self-rule. A suzerain can also mean 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 Chinamarker 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 entire 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 dynastymarker 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 equal states.

One way European states attempted to describe the relations between the Qing Dynastymarker and its outlying regions was in terms of suzerainty, although this did not at all match the traditional Chinese diplomatic theory.


The claims of both the People's Republic of Chinamarker and the Republic of Chinamarker to Tibet are based on the principle of "succession of states", as the Yuanmarker and Qingmarker Dynasties had exercised sovereignty over Tibet.

On October 29, 2008, David Miliband, the British Foreign Secretary, announced that Britain would recognize Tibet as historically part of the People’s Republic of China, i.e. recognize Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. Before this, Britain had officially recognized the PRC's relationship with Tibet as suzerainty. Britain was the last country to recognise China's sovereignty due to its prior invasion of Tibet, this recognition would impact the legitimacy of India's claim to South Tibet.



Following India's independence in 1947, a treaty signed between the Chogyal and the then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru gave Indiamarker suzerainty over Sikkimmarker in exchange for it retaining its independence. This continued until 1975, when the Sikkimese monarchy was abrogated 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 Bhutanmarker. However India provides substantial support to the Royal Bhutan Army and guarantees its support against external aggression. This is one of several situations in international politics where two sovereign states agree to have the more powerful administer the defense of the weaker.


Located in the Arabian Seamarker, Lakshadweepmarker is a Union Territory of India off the coast of the south western state of Keralamarker.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 Indian Empire which acceded to Pakistan maintained their sovereignty with the Government of Pakistan acting as the Suzerain until 1956 for Bahawalpur, Khairpur, and the Baluchistan States, 1969 for Chitralmarker and the Frontier States, and 1974 for Hunza and Nagyr is the larger part of the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmirmarker, claimed by both Pakistan & India.

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 Transvaalmarker, which existed until 1910, when it became the Province of Transvaal in the Union of South Africa.

Other countries

In modern geopolitics, it is common for larger countries to look after the defense and foreign relations of nearby smaller countries. Usually, this differs from traditional suzerainty in that the lesser party - if internationally recognised as independent - retains the right to abrogate the arrangement following a referendum.

Prominent examples of countries responsible for affairs of other independent states include:

Examples of countries responsible for affairs of territories over whom they have legal sovereignty include:

Historical Suzerainties

(to the Ottoman Empire):

(to the Republic of Chinamarker):


  1. Grunfeld, A.T., Reassessing Tibet Policy, saying: "Mongol conquests in the 13th century made Tibet part of a Mongol-ruled Chinese state, and four centuries later the ethnic Manchu Qing dynasty further incorporated Tibet into China."
  2. Grunfeld, A.T., The Making of Modern Tibet, p256-257
  3. The Catholic Encyclopedia (Volume XIV, 1912 edition): Tibet and China
  4. Encyclopaedia Britannica (1911 edition): Tibet and China
  5. Van Walt van Praag, Michael C., The Status of Tibet, p37, saying: "the Waiwu Bu (Qing's Foreign Ministry) insisted on the recognition of it's government's sovereignty instead of suzerainty over Tibet."
  6. 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.

See also

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