AskDefine | Define suzerain

Dictionary Definition

suzerain n : a state exercising a degree of dominion over a dependent state especially in its foreign affairs

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A dominant nation or state which has control over the international affairs of a subservient state which has domestic autonomy.
  2. A feudal land-owner to whom peasants were forced to pledge allegiance.

Derived terms

Extensive Definition

Suzerainty ( or /ˈsjuːzəreɪnti/) is a situation in which a region or people is a tributary to a more powerful entity which allows the tributary some limited domestic autonomy to control its foreign affairs. The more powerful entity in the suzerainty relationship, or the head of state of that more powerful entity, 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. It is similar to the notion of hegemony.
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.



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 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 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 rule, 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 Dynasty 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 China and the Republic of China to Tibet are based on the principle of "succession of states", as the Mongol Yuan. and Manchu Qing Dynasties had exercised authority over Tibet.



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 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 Bhutan. 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 Sea, Lakshadweep is a Union Territory of India off the coast of the south western 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.

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.

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 Republic of Užice in Serbia and the Lokot Autonomy in Central Russia.

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 retains the right to abrogate the arrangement following a referendum. Some prominent examples include:

Historically suzerain

(to the Ottoman Empire):


  • Garver, John W. Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century. Seattle: U of Washington P, 2001.
suzerain in Bosnian: Suzerenstvo
suzerain in Danish: Suzerænitet
suzerain in German: Suzeränität
suzerain in French: Suzeraineté
suzerain in Dutch: Suzerein
suzerain in Norwegian: Suzerenitet
suzerain in Polish: Suweren (feudalizm)
suzerain in Portuguese: Suserania
suzerain in Chinese: 宗主权
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