What Is a Sphere of Influence?

Great Britain, Germany, Russia, France, and Japan carve the Chinese pie into spheres of influence while a Manchu official looks on helplessly
via Wikipedia

In international relations (and history), a sphere of influence is a region within one country over which another country claims certain exclusive rights. The degree of control exerted by the foreign power depends on the amount of military force involved in the two countries' interactions, generally. 

Examples of Spheres of Influence in Asian History 

Famous examples of spheres of influence in Asian history include the spheres established by the British and Russians in Persia (Iran) in the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 and the spheres within Qing China that were taken by eight different foreign nations late in the nineteenth century. These spheres served varied purposes for the imperial powers involved, so their layout and administration differed as well.

Spheres in Qing China

The eight nations' spheres in Qing China were designated primarily for trade purposes. Great Britain, France, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany, Italy, Russia, the United States, and Japan each had exclusive special trading rights, including low tariffs and free trade, within Chinese territory. In addition, each of the foreign powers had the right to establish a legation in Peking (now Beijing), and the citizens of these powers had extraterritorial rights while on Chinese soil.

The Boxer Rebellion

Many ordinary Chinese did not approve of these arrangements, and in 1900 the Boxer Rebellion broke out. The Boxers aimed to rid Chinese soil of all foreign devils. At first, their targets included the ethnic-Manchu Qing rulers, but the Boxers and the Qing soon joined forces against the agents of the foreign powers. They laid siege to the foreign legations in Peking, but a joint Eight Power naval invasion force rescued the legation staff after almost two months of fighting.

Spheres of Influence in Persia

In contrast, when the British Empire and the Russian Empire carved out spheres of influence in Persia in 1907, they were less interested in Persia itself than in its strategic position. Britain wanted to protect its "crown jewel" colony, British India, from Russian expansion. Russia had already pushed south through what are now the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, and seized parts of northern Persia outright. This made British officials very nervous since Persia bordered on the Baluchistan region of British India (in what is now Pakistan).

To keep the peace between themselves, the British and Russians agreed that Britain would have a sphere of influence including most of eastern Persia, while Russia would have a sphere of influence over northern Persia. They also decided to seize many of Persia's revenue sources to pay themselves back for previous loans. Naturally, all of this was decided without consulting the Qajar rulers of Persia or any other Persian officials.

Fast Forward to Today

Today, the phrase "sphere of influence" has lost some of its punch. Real estate agents and retail malls use the term to designate the neighborhoods from which they draw most of their customers or in which they do most of their business.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Hast, Susanna. "Spheres of Influence in International Relations: History, Theory and Politics." Milton Park UK: Routledge, 2016. 
  • White, Craig Howard. "Sphere of Influence, Star of Empire: American Renaissance Cosmos, Volume 1. Madison: University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1992.
  • Icenhower, Brian. "SOI: Building a Real Estate Agent's Sphere of Influence." CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2018.
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Szczepanski, Kallie. "What Is a Sphere of Influence?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-sphere-of-influence-195272. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2020, August 25). What Is a Sphere of Influence? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-sphere-of-influence-195272 Szczepanski, Kallie. "What Is a Sphere of Influence?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-sphere-of-influence-195272 (accessed March 27, 2023).