--Clyde Russell is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own.--
By Clyde Russell
LAUNCESTON, Australia, Sept 1 (Reuters) - In the high-stakes poker game being played between the Indonesian government and mining companies, it has come as a bit of a surprise that Jakarta appears to be playing the winning hand.
So far the Indonesian government has successfully stared down two U.S. mining giants, imposed a ban on exporting some raw metal ores and is deaf to the squeals of the beleaguered coal industry as it tightens rules on what had been a cowboy sector.
When the government started down the path of changing the laws and regulations in order to ensure a greater share of the Southeast Asian nation’s mineral wealth stayed at home, it was widely assumed that it would lack the resolve and the ability to stand up to the powerful mining industry.
Previous attempts had resulted in compromises that favoured miners and the government was widely viewed as inefficient, inconsistent and largely ineffectual.
But in recent weeks the government has been shown to be holding a stronger hand than its opponents, and it has been willing to call their bluffs.
First, U.S. mining major Freeport McMoRan signed a memorandum of understanding with the outgoing administration of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono that should result in the government getting what it wanted, without giving up much in return.
The deal allows Freeport, which operates Grasberg, the world’s second-largest open-cut copper mine, to resume exports of copper ore after providing a $115 million bond for the building of a smelter with partners.
Freeport also agreed to higher royalties, an export tax and to divest 30 percent of its Indonesian unit, while in return the government committed to providing the U.S. company with a mining licence between 2019 and 2021 to allow it to continue operations until 2035.
This was important for Freeport, as the Grasberg site is believed to contain large deposits of copper and gold, but will need exploration and other investments to develop.
Newmont Mining Corp, which like Freeport had halted copper ore shipments earlier this year in dispute over the government’s hike to export taxes, had taken a different path to Freeport in attempting to force Indonesia to international arbitration.
However, the Denver, Colorado-based group withdrew the claim last week, almost immediately leading to a breakthrough in its seven-month dispute with Jakarta.
Newmont will resume copper exports next week after agreeing to pay increased royalties, a government official said on Monday..
It could be argued that Freeport’s more conciliatory approach worked better than Newmont’s now abandoned hardline stance, but that ignores the two companies had different priorities with their Indonesian assets.
Freeport’s Grasberg is a world-scale mine sitting on vast potential untapped reserves, and is thus a strategic asset for the company, giving it more incentive to negotiate a deal to ensure it remains with the company’s portfolio.
Newmont’s Batu Hijau mine is considerably smaller than Grasberg and may not be worked much longer than the 2030 expiry date of the existing licence.
This meant Newmont had less incentive to re-negotiate a contract that it believed the government would be forced to honour had the case proceeded to arbitration.
It may also be the case that the Freeport deal helped Newmont realise that compromise was possible, or put another way, once the first domino fell it was always going to be easier for the government to get other companies to fall into line.
No doubt the incoming government of President-elect Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, which takes office next month, will be keen to get off to a good start with the mining industry.
But that doesn’t mean the government will be stepping back from its plans to extract more from the resource sector.
Coal miners are also feeling the pinch, saying some will go under if the government pushes ahead with rules to force them to register with a central authority and pay export royalties in advance.
The new rules aim to stamp out illegal mining, which is estimated at about 50 million tonnes per annum, or about one-seventh of forecast legal exports in 2014.
The coal industry says it can’t afford to pay royalties in advance, but the government appears unconvinced.
If past patterns are repeated, it’s likely the authorities may well stick to their plans, having already shown they are prepared to take the pain of loss of revenue from lower exports of metal ores if they believe the long-term gains are worth it.
While the Indonesian government has so far played better poker, their strategy isn’t without risks.
The main problem the authorities are likely to face is declining investment in mining, as the rules become more burdensome and the expected returns lower.
This will ultimately have a negative impact on production as existing reserves are mined and not replaced by new projects.
After all, if you are too good a poker player, the other players may decide to go to another table and try their luck there. (Editing by Himani Sarkar)