Responding to Prime Minister Abbott's letter on the spying controversy on Tuesday, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono floated the idea of a 'code of ethics' to set the bilateral relationship on a new footing. SBY gave very few details of what such a code would contain, though presumably it would include some at least vague mutual assurances about surveillance or information gathering.

So why is this strange? Only in the sense that you just don't hear the phrase 'code of ethics' thrown around a lot in international diplomacy. 'Code of conduct', sure. There are numerous examples of those in international diplomacy, including a proposal for the South China Sea and another for the use of outer space. Some of the media reporting quotes SBY as referring to an 'ethical code of conduct' and the ABC reporter above who was at SBY's media conference refers to a code of conduct, so maybe this is just a translation issue.

The reason this matters is that, as a known quantity in international diplomacy, we have a general sense of the legal and political status of a code of conduct. But a code of ethics? What standing will such a document have?

It seems SBY himself thinks it will have high standing, since he has proposed that 'When the protocol and code of ethics are ready to be approved, I want to make sure that both Prime Minister Tony Abbott and myself are present'. A signing ceremony, then, with both national political leaders in attendance. That suggests SBY is not offering Abbott a highly prejudicial deal designed to humiliate Australia and play well domestically. Abbott would never agree to such a code, let alone show up to a public ceremony to sign it.

The other indicator that this a constructive proposal from SBY is that he is reported as saying the proposed code would cover the bilateral relationship as a whole, not just intelligence issues. That suggests SBY sees this crisis not as an opportunity just to win concessions from Australia and enhance his reputation domestically (though that too), but as a chance to build something new and better out of this mess.

I should stress that these are early impressions based on very little information. Look out for Prime Minister Abbott's response in coming days.