A new travel warning has been issued after the arrest of Australians on drug charges in China, which imposes the death penalty in the most serious cases.

Australians charged with drug offences in China could face the death penalty, prompting the federal government to update its travel advisory.

A government source said an unspecified number of Australians had been arrested for drug offences in China since late last year when a crackdown began.

They had been charged, but had not yet been through the full judicial process.

Asked whether they faced the death penalty, the senior source said: “It’s conceivable, but depends on the process of the judicial system.

“They are serious cases and we are not taking them lightly.”

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on Thursday altered its travel advice to China to specifically warn of the dangers of drug possession and trafficking in China and the potential for the death penalty to be imposed for the most serious offences.

The government spokesman said all of the arrested Australians had been offered consular assistance and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had been briefed.

To date, no Australians have been executed under China’s tough anti-drugs laws.

Two Ugandans were executed in July and a further 23 of their countrymen are believed to be on death row for drug offences.

DFAT said Chinese police had picked up a number of foreigners this year attempting to traffic drugs out of the airports in Guangzhou and Hong Kong.

The overall travel alert level for China remains at the lowest level “exercise normal safety precautions”.

But the department is concerned that Australians – 300,000 of whom visit China each year – are not receiving the warning that there are severe penalties in place for the use, possession and trafficking of drugs.

Australian travellers are encouraged not to carry parcels or luggage for other people into China or out of the country if they do not know the contents.

The Australian government is opposed in principle to capital punishment, but is not in a position to override or seek to intervene in the Chinese judicial process.

The government source said under Chinese law there was “very limited scope” to appeal for clemency or pardon.

The Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua says there has been a 72 per cent rise in drug-related arrests over the past year.