China's claims over islands, reefs and atolls in resource-rich waters off its south coast and to the east of mainland Southeast Asia set it directly against U.S. allies Vietnam and the Philippines. Meanwhile, Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia also lay claim to parts.
"The Philippines has exhausted almost all political and diplomatic avenues for a peaceful negotiated settlement of its maritime dispute with China," Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario said.
"To this day, a solution is still elusive. We hope that the arbitral proceedings shall bring this dispute to a durable solution," he said.
But it was not clear how the tribunal can help. While all its decisions are binding on countries concerned, it has no power to enforce them.
There was no immediate reaction from Beijing.
The Philippines has previously sought the support of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations ( ASEAN) on the territorial dispute, with ASEAN agreeing to ask China to start talks on a code of conduct.
But Beijing says it wants to address the disputes via bilateral talks. Its relations with Tokyo are also under strain after the Japanese government bought disputed islands from a private Japanese owner in September, triggering violent protests and calls for boycotts of Japanese products across China.
Manila said that any joint development with China should respect Philippine laws. A unit of Philippine firm Philex Petroleum Corp is hoping to resume talks with Chinese state-owned offshore oil producer CNOOC on joint exploration of oil and gas fields in the South China Sea.