"We'll never have the same relationship with China, a nondemocratic society, that we can have with India," Tillerson said in answering a question after a speech on India at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
In pointed criticism of Beijing, which the United States is urging to be tougher on North Korea over its nuclear weapons program, Tillerson made an unflattering comparison between the ways India and China have progressed over the past two decades.
"China, while rising alongside India, has done so less responsibly, at times undermining the international, rules-based order — even as countries like India operate within a framework that protects other nations' sovereignty," he said. "China's provocative actions in the South China Sea directly challenge the international law and norms that the United States and India both stand for."
"The United States seeks constructive relations with China," he added. "But we won't shrink from China's challenges to the rules-based order or where China subverts the sovereignty of neighboring countries and disadvantages the U.S. and our friends."
Tillerson's remarks came in advance of his upcoming trip to South Asia, including a visit to New Delhi. He echoed remarks by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis before his trip to India last month, characterizing security as one of the "key strategic pillars" of the U.S.-India relationship.
A senior State Department official told reporters that the speech aimed to establish a foundation for U.S.-India relations over the next century. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under State Department rules for briefing reporters, said India and the United States can work with Japan and Australia to ensure democratic values triumph over China's growing influence in the region.
"The secretary spends a lot of time dealing with problems," the official said. "India is an opportunity."
Tillerson said the Trump administration seeks to "dramatically deepen" ties with India, including militarily. He noted India has been designated a major defense partner, which will allow the United States to sell it more defense hardware with sophisticated capabilities that Washington zealously guards, granting access only to its most trusted allies.
"In this period of uncertainty and angst, India needs a reliable partner on the world stage," Tillerson said. "I want to make clear — with our shared values and vision for global stability, peace and prosperity, the United States is that partner."
Tillerson made only passing reference to Pakistan, India's neighbor and regional rival, saying Washington expects Pakistan "to take decisive action against terrorist groups based there."
His remarks came as President Trump is preparing for a 12-day trip to five Asian nations, including China, that will focus on security and trade. The administration has taken a harder line with Beijing as Trump has grown frustrated by its inability, or unwillingness, to exert greater influence on North Korea to stop its nuclear and ballistic-missile tests.
Last month, Trump signed an executive action aimed at granting the Treasury Department greater authority to impose sanctions on foreign companies that do business with Pyongyang, and the president said China's central bank was enacting a similar crackdown on banks in that country, which is North Korea's biggest trading partner. But experts said it was unclear whether China would follow through with the tougher rules.
The warm relationship between Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi helped alleviate fears in New Delhi that Trump's early rapport with China's President Xi Jinping would draw Washington closer to Beijing.
David Nakamura contributed to this report.