(Adds climate change summit background)
By Marion Giraldo
SANTIAGO, Oct 30 (Reuters) - Chile withdrew on Wednesday as the host of an APEC summit next month at which the United States and China had been expected to sign a deal to ease trade tensions hurting the global economy, as raging street protests gripped the South American country.
The abrupt move - which came after weeks of riots over inequality in Chile that have left at least 18 people dead - left the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in disarray, with participating countries caught off-guard and no alternative venue lined up.
Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, fighting for his political survival, said he had taken the “painful” decision to cancel the summit, as well as a high-profile international gathering on climate change in December, to focus on restoring law and order and pushing through a new social plan.
“As President to all Chileans I must always put the problems and interests of Chileans, their needs, their desires and their hopes, first,” he said in a brief statement at the La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago.
The APEC summit was scheduled to bring together 20 world leaders on Nov. 16-17. U.S. President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping had been due to sign an interim agreement to end the 15-month-old trade war.
The cancellation might deny the two leaders a chance to meet on neutral soil soon but the Trump administration said it still expects to sign the deal with China next month. A White House official told Reuters that Chile’s cancellation of the trade summit had caught the administration by surprise.
The Chilean president did not mention a possible alternative venue for the APEC summit.
Violent riots have left large parts of Santiago shut down, with the metro transport system suffering nearly $400 million in damage. A total 7,000 people have been arrested and Chilean businesses hit with losses of around $1.4 billion.
Pinera also said Chile would no longer be able to host the major U.N. COP25 climate summit between Dec. 2 and Dec. 13.
The climate summit would have brought delegates from around 190 nations to talks aimed at thrashing out details of how to reduce global emissions to meet the Paris climate agreement.
The United Nations is looking for a new venue for the conference after Pinera spoke with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres by phone on Wednesday to inform him of Chile’s withdrawal, a U.N. spokesman said.
With public concern at climate change having sparked demonstrations around the globe in recent months, Chile’s withdrawal - the first time a host nation had pulled out of hosting a major climate summit at such short notice - threw the process into confusion.
It came just days before Trump is expected to formalize his government’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on Nov. 4.
The cancellations are a further blow to Chile’s much-vaunted image as one of the most stable countries in Latin America.
“This has been a very difficult decision, a decision that causes us a lot of pain, because we fully understand the importance of APEC and COP25 for Chile and for the world,” Pinera added.
Chile’s embattled leader fired almost half his cabinet this week - including his finance, interior and economy ministers - in a bid to quell the protests but to little effect.
With Pinera’s popularity at an all-time low, Chileans were calling for new protests and the United Nations was sending a team to investigate allegations of human rights abuses by security forces.
Chile took over from the original host of the COP meeting, Brazil, after that country elected climate skeptic Jair Bolsonaro as president.
Pinera’s government had published a set of ambitious climate goals this month and said it would aim to push countries to draw up their own, further-reaching pledges at the summit ahead of a deadline next year under the Paris Agreement on limiting carbon emissions.
Costa Rica’s Environment and Energy Minister Carlos Manuel Rodriguez said the country was in talks with Chile and would support decisions to quickly find a successful alternative.
Costa Rica hosted a smaller climate change meeting, known as PreCOP25, earlier this month. (Reporting by Marion Giraldo; additional reporting by Valerie Volcovici in Washington, Nina Chestney in London and Dave Graham in Mexico City Writing by Aislinn Laing and Adam Jourdan Editing by Alistair Bell and Daniel Flynn)