As members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations prepare to mark the group's 30th anniversary later this year, mounting political and economic uncertainties have prompted intense discussion among regional officials about the body's future. While member governments remain committed to ASEAN's economic goals and expansion plans, bureaucrats have been worrying over the impact on the organisation of bringing on board the struggling economies of Laos, Cambodia and Burma. The serious domestic unrest in the latter two countries has also been causing growing concern. The recent grenade attack on an opposition rally in Phnom Penh and the bombing of a Burmese leader's home have highlighted anew the sharp contrast between daily life in the stable original members of ASEAN and the countries expected to join this year. While achieving the consensus that has been ASEAN's cherished objective has not been exactly easy among the five founding members - Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand - who were later joined by Brunei, it is likely to be much more difficult as the membership increases. With the new boys in the bloc, ASEAN's more tranquil years are probably behind it. For a time, 1997 looked like being the year in which ASEAN would be living more dangerously than has been its inclination. The move by its latest member, Vietnam, to seek the group's support in a territorial dispute with China raised the awesome spectre of ASEAN being dragged into a fight with the giant in the north. The threat eased with the withdrawal of the Chinese oil rig at the centre of the row from disputed waters in the South China Sea but the incident showed that not all ASEAN partners subscribed to what Malaysia's New Straits Times has affirmed as 'members' right to decide their own futures'. An unidentified ASEAN ambassador was reported to have expressed support for Hanoi and a senior ASEAN official said members were 'all in this together'. That sentiment was not echoed in Malaysia where the prevailing official view was that Vietnam would be 'on its own' if it became involved in a confrontation with China. In the diplomatic field, probably nothing differentiates Vietnam and Malaysia more than their approach to China, with which the Vietnamese have twice clashed militarily in the past 18 years. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad reaffirmed Malaysia's conciliatory attitude to the Chinese last month when he told an audience in Japan that problems with Beijing could be resolved by keeping a level head instead of adopting a confrontational attitude 'like sending naval ships to patrol China's coast'. 'China is committed to economic expansion and will not foolishly go into a war of aggression and conquest because such an idea is outdated,' he said. Officials insist ASEAN has much to celebrate on its 30th anniversary. They point to the involvement of its 12 dialogue partners in discussions affecting the Asia-Pacific region, the successful development of the ASEAN Regional Forum to address political and security issues and the recent establishment of ties to Europe through the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) initiative. So, is ASEAN pretending it does not have any problems in the hope they will go away? No, says Abdul Razak Baginda, head of the Malaysian Strategic Research Centre (MSRC), a Kuala Lumpur think-tank with links to the Minister of Education, Najib Tun Razak. He asserts that officials are fully aware of the problems and talking about them. But, according to Mr Razak, ASEAN faces a choice between 'symbolism and reality'. Mr Razak said he expected that the symbolism of ASEAN turning 30 and according membership to three more countries would be given more attention in 1997 than the reality of the problems ahead. This has been evident in the way that Malaysia, which is current chairman of the ASEAN standing committee, has been intent on overcoming or putting behind it the discord that has recently marked its bilateral relations with Singapore, Cambodia and Burma. As host of the annual ASEAN ministerial meeting in July and an ASEAN summit later in the year, Malaysia is keen to avoid any regional disharmony or hindrance to the expansion of the group from its present seven members to an ASEAN 10. Mr Mahathir is pushing strongly for the creation of the ASEAN 10 to provide the core for his personal initiative, the East Asian Economic Caucus, in which he also hopes to include China, South Korea and Japan. Relations between Malaysia and Singapore were severely strained when the island republic's Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew made a disparaging reference to the Malaysian state of Johor in an affidavit for a defamation suit against an opposition politician. But Mr Mahathir has said that relations are 'normalising'. The Malaysian Government has been concerned over the effect of political instability on Malaysian investments in Cambodia, where co-Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh cancelled a Malaysian company's US$1.3 billion (HK$10.06 billion) project. But after he received a letter from the other co-Prime Minister, Hun Sen, asserting that the deal was still on, Mr Mahathir took the diplomatic approach of saying he hoped the matter could be resolved. Buddhist attacks on mosques in Burma prompted the youth wing of the United Malays National Organisation, the dominant government party, to call on the ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council to 'uphold human rights' and not oppress Muslims. However, the Malaysian Government avoided any criticism, saying it had received an assurance from the Burmese regime that it was 'taking all necessary precautions to prevent any unpleasant clashes'. Despite Malaysia's accommodating official stance in the three cases, the tensions created by these bilateral incidents could hamper efforts within ASEAN to forge consensual agreements. Many Malaysians remain bitter towards Singapore and the business community is still unhappy with the situation in Cambodia. In the economic field, ASEAN officials are troubled by the disparities among present and future members, reflected in analysts' warnings of banking troubles ahead in Vietnam, the International Monetary Fund's report of serious macro-economic problems in Burma and the business community's waning confidence in Cambodia. Noting ASEAN's plans for a free-trade area in 10 years, Mr Razak said only some countries would be in a position to implement the tariff reductions. 'What are we going to do with the others?' he asked.