Asia–Pacific Stands to Benefit from Regionalization of Talent Mobility—Here is How

The Asia–Pacific region is a source and destination of migrant talent. Photo credit: ADB.

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Less developed countries can take advantage of increased talent flows in the region in expanding their “brain network.”


Transnational talent mobility, or the ability of workers to move within their profession across the borders, was growing fast in the Asia–Pacific region before the pandemic. It is likely to resume after the pandemic’s resolution.

Several factors have facilitated regional talent mobility. Immigrant-welcoming countries, such as Australia and New Zealand as well as Singapore, continue to rely on foreign talent, and increasingly more from the Asia–Pacific region. Advanced nations like Japan and the Republic of Korea have growing needs for foreign talent as they see their labor forces age and decline.

Countries like India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and the Philippines will continue to be main suppliers of migrant talent as their labor forces remain young and are expected to grow. Taken together, these factors are likely to encourage people of working age—including the highly educated—to move within the region.

Regional talent mobility is also aided by improved quality of higher education in Asia, which means students no longer need to journey far from home for high-quality education. As a result, they are also more likely to work in the Asian countries where they study.

Strategically valuable

Regional talent is increasingly seen as strategically valuable. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is actively courting students from countries taking part in the Belt and Road Initiative program. For example, the number of Pakistani students in the PRC increased to 28,023 in 2018 from 8,516 in 2011. As part of its Indo-Pacific strategy, Australia also proactively seeks to build bridges with countries in the region from which many of its international students and temporary skilled workers come.

Geopolitics and recent anti-foreign sentiments in the West have also contributed to regional talent movements. The rise of anti-Asian (especially anti-Chinese) sentiments as well as the ongoing conflict between the United States and the People’s Republic of China have dissuaded some Chinese students from going to study in the United States. In 2021, the number dropped to half of its pre-pandemic level. Likewise, xenophobic anti-immigrant sentiments have made many Western European nations like the United Kingdom less appealing to international students.

How can less developed countries gain from this regionalization? India and the PRC, the two most populous countries and top providers of skilled migrants in the world, yield lessons. Both initially suffered from serious brain drain but have been able to convert it into developmental assets. The PRC has sought to bring overseas Chinese back home (brain circulation), whereas India has focused on capitalizing on its international networks of non-resident Indians (brain linkage).

Furthermore, in the PRC, brain circulation facilitated brain linkage, while in India, linkage led to circulation, thereby expanding each country’s talent engagement. While the PRC’s and India’s brain circulation and linkage have largely occurred at the global level to date, especially with the countries’ diasporas in North America, less developed countries in the region are well-positioned to utilize these strategies to reap the benefits from increasing regional talent flows. A recent report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) noted the expanding “brain network” within ASEAN, but we need to go beyond that to include the broader Asia and Pacific sphere.

Ways Forward

Less developed countries should consider these policies.

Don’t be afraid of brain drain. Holding their talent back from studying or working overseas will exacerbate less developed countries’ isolation from the global economy. What they lack is not just human capital but also ties to the center of global economic activity. Less developed countries should rather pay close attention to the level of talent outflow—whether it is excessive or manageable—and its composition—skilled or unskilled.

Take advantage of regionalization. Send more talent—students and skilled labor—to more advanced nations in the region, which offer excellent educational opportunities and have growing needs for foreign talent. They have advantages in terms of geographical and cultural proximity. For example, the small time zone difference enables voice and video calls to be made more frequently. This is just one way in which the geographic proximity between South and Southeast Asian countries and their more-developed neighbors in Northeast Asia and Oceania will enable increased brain linkage, perhaps leading to greater benefits than trans-Pacific linkages.

Invest in higher education. Expand and improve skill development and higher education pathways for high-demand sectors, be willing to take an initial risk of brain drain, and seek to convert drain into developmental assets later through circulation or linkage. Less developed countries should seek to produce regionally (if not globally) competitive talent that meets the industrial demands of advanced nations in the region and understands their cultures.

Brain circulation vs. linkage. Consider a two-pronged approach, either consecutively or simultaneously using optimal ratios of each, depending on their needs and resources. In general, those countries that have reached a higher level of development and have more resources at hand can more easily induce their citizens overseas to return home. Not only do they have more economic opportunities and a better environment to offer but also more resources to invest into returnee-oriented programs. On the other hand, those countries that have yet to accumulate the necessary resources have policy options within reach; linkage would be more feasible in the short to medium term compared to circulation.

Choosing the right destinations. Skilled laborers in immigrant-friendly nations are likely to remain long-term. Accordingly, less developed countries that seek brain circulation may place skilled nationals in countries that are stricter on permanent immigration (e.g., Japan, South Korea), reasonably expecting them to return home at higher rates. Less developed countries that seek to maximize brain linkage, at the risk of minimizing brain circulation, may place skilled nationals in immigrant-friendly societies (e.g., Australia, Singapore).

There are opportunities for less developed countries that are concerned with brain drain to formulate strategies that can manage talent outflows and minimize brain drain.

Dr. Gi-Wook Shin is a consultant of the South Asia Department of the Asian Development Bank.

Gi-Wook Shin
Director, Shorenstein Asia–Pacific Research Center, Stanford University

Gi-Wook Shin is William J. Perry Professor of Contemporary Korea, professor of Sociology, senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and director of the Korea Program. His research concentrates on social movements, nationalism, development, and international relations. His current book project on global talent flows examines the growing importance of transnational human and social capital and assesses talent development and recruitment in the Asia–Pacific region. He holds a PhD from the University of Washington.

Asian Development Bank (ADB)

The Asian Development Bank is committed to achieving a prosperous, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable Asia and the Pacific, while sustaining its efforts to eradicate extreme poverty. Established in 1966, it is owned by 68 members—49 from the region. Its main instruments for helping its developing member countries are policy dialogue, loans, equity investments, guarantees, grants, and technical assistance.

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