The world is watching closely as China begins investing billions of dollars into a hyper-ambitious "New Silk Road" aimed at broadening the country's financial scope and enhancing global trade. The plan is called "One Belt, One Road" and is essentially a network of land and maritime routes to improve the flow of goods and access to Central Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
But many people living in the region fear that China is also attempting to gain overwhelmingly political power that could threaten their current way of life.
Beijing intends to connect more than 60 countries, with a collective population of 4.4 billion people -- more than half of the world. It's expected to spend close to a trillion dollars on the initiative, primarily focused on major infrastructure development projects including thousands of miles of railroad tracks to create routes from China all the way to Western Europe.
Photojournalist Davide Monteleone recently produced an essay for the New Yorker in which he met with locals where the routes are being developed. "It's very complicated to understand how does this actually affect people's lives in the region -- in China, in Khazakstan," Monteleone said in an interview with CBSN. "Regular people don't really understand what it is. They aren't very interested in what's going to happen on a global, geopolitical level. They are more concerned about how it's going to affect their everyday life."
But, Monteleone said, geopolitics plays a huge role in why China is pushing the project. "This is the thing: It looks like an economical initiative, but in fact it is probably more of a foreign policy initiative. This is leverage China will have on countries once they start economic relations."
Chinese officials insist the initiative is purely commercial, but foreign diplomats and political analysts also see an effort by the Communist Beijing government to promote its ambitions to rewrite global rules on trade and security and reduce the U.S. presence in Asia.
Diplomats have expressed concern that Beijing is promoting a vision of trading networks centered on "great powers" such as China, which would erode the rules-based system under the World Trade Organization in which all competitors are treated equally.
President Donald Trump's plan to focus on domestic issues and downplay foreign affairs has given Beijing an opening to try to play a bigger leadership role in trade, climate and other global issues.
China is the biggest trading partner for all of its Asian neighbors and a growing investor. But some Asian governments are uneasy about Beijing's strategic ambitions, especially after it built artificial islands and military bases in the South China Sea to enforce its claim to most of the region.
Mr. Trump's decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed regional trade pact, has left Asian governments that want to use ties with Washington to offset China's growing dominance off balance.
"They have the strongest leader in Xi Jinping they've had at least since Mao [Zedong]," Eurasia Group president and CBS Contributor Ian Bremmer said in an interview with "CBS This Morning" last week. "And because the United States is America first, it's transactional. It's unilateral. It's undermining a lot of alliances. You put those things together, and suddenly you actually have a China that is willing to engage in what is increasingly a geopolitical vacuum."
Bremmer added: "In other words, this is the first time we've ever seen as U.S. leadership erodes, no one else has been standing up. Now the leader of China is saying we're prepared to stand up whether it's on climate or the global economy, you know, regional security, you name it -- that's a big change for the world."